Dagestan: Russia’s hottest spot

Asked to name Russia’s most troublesome region, most people would plump for Chechnya. But its neighbour Dagestan is now officially the most dangerous part of the Federations.

Zakir Magomedov
8 March 2014

In this republic of three million people there are sixty different ethnic groups, and not a week goes by without clashes between the police and insurgents, anti-terrorist special forces raids and explosions. It is also one of its least developed regions, with most of its financial needs met by subsidies from the centre. And its level of corruption is one of the highest in Russia as well. 

The media blackout   

Before the Sochi Olympics the Russian government was naturally afraid that Islamist militants from Dagestan might attempt to disrupt this prestigious project, and if it had happened then the world would have heard about it. But the Russian media were ordered to hush up any local, run of the mill incidents in this nearby region during the Olympics and Paralympics.  

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Dagestan is one of Russia's least developed regions. Photo CC BolshakovSo if you look at news agency tapes from the beginning of February you will find no record of a shooting attack on the police in Babayurt, special forces operations in the capital Makhachkala or the murder of a 14 year old by insurgents. During the Olympics the movement of Dagestanis was also restricted: in one district, for example, police stopped people as they left a mosque and made them sign a document promising to inform them (the police) if they were travelling out of the republic. The police insisted this was a routine security measure: ‘No-one is stopping anyone from going anywhere. They can go where they like; they just need to tell us where they are going’, they told us, but wouldn’t explain why they were doing it. 

During the Olympics the movement of Dagestanis was restricted.

According to Dagestan’s Anti-terrorist Commission, 96 police officers were killed last year, with 22 murdered in the city of Khazavyurt alone. In neighbouring Chechnya this problem is dealt with more effectively: the authorities react mercilessly to any signs of radicalism. If a young man joins an insurgent gang, for example, special forces heavies put the screws on his family: their house might be burned down, or family members abducted.  In Dagestan there’s none of this collective blame. Compared to mono-ethnic Chechnya and other parts of the north Caucasus, Dagestan is a relatively liberal republic – civil society is more developed here; there are separate mosques for different religious groups and in terms of freedom of speech Dagestan could serve as an example to other Russian regions. But people are afraid of what might happen after the Olympics, and many experts believe that, once the circus leaves Sochi after the Paralympics, Russian troops might march into Dagestan, as they did in Chechnya.In fact it would have been almost impossible for people from Dagestan to enter Sochi. All visitors had to apply in advance for temporary registration permits, and a lawyer from Ingushetia revealed on social networks that there was an unspoken ban on giving them to people from the north Caucasus region. Since the suicide bombing by a Dagestani woman in Volgograd at the end of last year, roadblocks have been increased on all the major roads in the republic. Cars and their passengers are subjected to endless checks: on the border with the Stavropol Krai, for example, tailbacks several kilometres long can be seen every day. The republic’s concerns about security can be judged by the fact that when the Olympic torch was carried through other cities in Russia, crowds lined the streets; in Makhachkala, however, the flame bearers ran round a football stadium guarded by more than a thousand police.

Branches of Islam

One reason for the escalation in violence in Dagestan is conflict between the various Islamic groups. The vast majority of Muslims here have traditionally been Sufis, but every year sees the appearance of members of a more radical movement within Islam, Salafism. Most of the militants identify with this movement, which makes life difficult for peaceful Salafis. 

The Alburikent Mosque, whose Iman was shot by unknown assailants in August 2013

The Alburikent Mosque, whose Iman was shot by unknown assailants in August 2013. CC Abu Abaida.Experts believed that a dialogue between the groups could defuse some of the tension, and in April 2012 representatives of the two sides signed a resolution agreeing to lay aside any existing grievances between them and cooperate in resolving future disagreements with the help of Islamic scholars – an unprecedented step for both communities, and taken without any government pressure. However, a few months later the Sufi leader Sheik Saida Afandi was killed in a suicide bombing, and that was the end of the dialogue.  Dagestan’s President Abdulatipov has since tried to bring the two sides together for further discussions, but without success, and not helped by a split within the Salafi faction.  

Many experts believe that once the circus leaves Sochi Russian troops might march into Dagestan.

But if attempts at peaceful discussion haven’t had any beneficial effect on the situation, Caucasus experts have been coming up with other ideas for combatting extremism. 

An anti-insurgent crisis

Svetlana Isayeva, head of the organisation ‘Dagestan Mothers for Human Rights’ believes that police insensitivity is one reason for Salafi radicalisation. ‘They make the mistake of lumping everyone together – as far as they’re concerned all Salafis are extremists, whereas in fact the majority don’t support the insurgents and just want to live a peaceful life. Now they’re constantly harassing militants’ families. Is it their fault if their nephew or uncle joins the insurgents?’

In some places relatives of militants were subjected to mass arrests and punitive measures.

Yekaterina Sokiryanskaya, the North Caucasus project director for the International Crisis Group, agrees that the Salafi community is under a lot of pressure: ‘Under Dagestan’s previous leader, Magomedsalam Magomedov, there was a much more tolerant attitude to the Salafis, but a year ago President Putin replaced him with Ramazan Abdulatipov and since then there has been constant harassment of the community.’

Russian Federal Security Service employees during a special operation in Makhachkala 29 December 2012 Commons RIA Novosti 460.jpg

FSB service employees during a special operation in Makhachkala 29 December 2012. Photo RIA NovostiA report compiled by Sokiryanskaya and her colleagues details some examples: ‘Salafi community initiatives such as madrasahs, pre-school nurseries and sports clubs were closed down. Intimidation of Salafi religious leaders was renewed, and some of them left the republic. In some places relatives of militants were subjected to mass arrests and punitive measures, which appears to have pushed some radically-minded young men underground.’

The authorities in Dagestan seem to be saying now they need to find new ways to tackle the situation. There are meetings happening almost every week to discuss the issues, although they haven’t yet come up with any alternative solutions. At one of these Kazenin, along with fellow analyst Irina Starodubrovskaya, gave a presentation entitled ‘The northern Caucasus: quo vadis?’, where they argued that any anti-terrorist strategy has to be based on civil rights and the rule of law, with the activities of the police and other law enforcement agencies brought under the strict control of the civil authorities and the results discussed publicly. Political analyst and Caucasus expert Konstantin Kazenin also believes that the use of strong-arm tactics is only making things worse. ‘International experience shows that relying on force alone to combat terrorism is often counterproductive’, he told me, ‘and it has a lot of negative effects, including the infringement of peaceful citizens’ rights and an escalation of violence on both sides’. 

The economics of terror

Ramazan Abdulatipov, Dagestan’s head of government, is given to making aggressive statements. He has frequently announced, for example, that officials found to be in contact with insurgents will not only be fired but also prosecuted. But the fact that officials were a source of income for the militants was well known to his predecessor Magomedsalam Magomedov, who stated at a meeting of the Antiterrorist Commission that part of the republic’s budget (70% of which, let me remind you, is provided by Moscow) goes into the pockets of the insurgents. Dagestan is also known for its high level of corruption: in a comparative table of corruption in government procurement compiled by the Russian civil rights and safety organisation ‘Safe Fatherland’, Dagestan had the second highest figures (and Chechnya the highest). The militants know, of course, that the bureaucrats steal right, left and centre and so have no scruples in asking for a share of the takings to fund their jihad.

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Dagestan's Sufi community has experienced constant harassment since Abdulatipov became leader.Photo CC Presidential press officeAnother tactic of the insurgents is to send officials and business people a ‘flashka’ – a flash drive - containing a video with a demand for a large sum of money. In other parts of Russia flash drives are used, like everywhere else, to save and transfer data, but in Dagestan the word has a completely different connotation. There are even spoof videos on Youtube, made by schoolchildren – on one of them a lad threatens his head teacher, demanding a free computer and a revision of all his marks from Ds to As. One local MP was sufficiently moved by this to make a speech urging schools and universities to run awareness raising sessions: ‘Children are imitating the militants, not the police’, he lamented.

Officials were a source of income for the militants.

Khasavyurt  businessman Nasrudin Isakov was one of the people to receive a ‘flashka’. A large bomb recently exploded next to his shop, and he only survived because he had opened his safe to look at some papers and it stood between him and the blast. He had had several communications from local paramilitary gangs demanding money for the jihad, but was afraid to go to the police because the militants threatened to harm his family. And in any case, as he says, ‘How could the police protect me when they can’t even look after themselves? Cops are getting killed just about every day in Khasavyurt’.

Isakov refused to give the insurgents any money. Then last December they shot his son Umar outside his own house. ‘The police opened a criminal file because there was a death involved, but it says that Umar was being careless with a gun,’ Isakov explains. ‘If you believe this version of events, the pistol must have fallen from his hands and shot him three times in the heart... But I hadn’t the strength to argue, and there was no point anyway.’ 

The threat of terrorist activity in Dagestan is an issue that is becoming more pressing by the day.

Isakov still didn’t pay the militants. ‘One of them phoned me,’ he says, ‘to remind me about my debt. I asked him why he was demanding money from me. I run my business according to both Russian and Sharia law; I don’t drink alcohol; I help the poor and orphaned. He answered that I should pay just because I’m a Sufi.’

Are Russians potential terrorists?     

The threat of terrorist activity in Dagestan is an issue that is becoming more pressing by the day. One focus of police attention is ethnic Russian converts to Islam. This is no coincidence: according to the special forces, terrorist Dmitry Sokolov, who was recently killed during one of their raids, prepared his wife Naida Asiyalova for her suicide bombing attack in Volgograd last year. 

A week ago Russian Muslim convert Olga Petrova was detained by two plain clothes police at Makhachkala’s bus station, where she had gone to look at a timetable. ‘A man came up to me’, she told me, ‘didn’t introduce himself and rudely asked to see my ID card, saying he was a police officer. When I took it out of my bag he grabbed it and asked me to come with him, which I did because I didn’t want to lose my ID.’

‘They said I looked suspicious because of how I was dressed. I wear a hijab.'

Once inside a police station, Petrova was asked about her family and her children, their dates of birth were noted and she was released. ‘No one explained why I had been detained,’ she said. ‘They said I looked suspicious because of how I was dressed. I wear a hijab, but that’s not against the law. As he let me out, the cop said it wouldn’t be our last conversation.’ 

Police interest in Petrova is not surprising – her husband is in prison for membership of an illegal paramilitary group. Nor, she told me, is it the first time she’s been singled out by the police. ‘On 20 January they came to the village where I was living, said it was a counter-terrorist operation and surrounded the house I was renting. There was nobody there except me and my children and two women friends, but that didn’t stop the heavies. They held us in the house for several hours, then took us to the police station, where they asked us about our relatives and friends, showed us some photos and demanded we identify some people’. She was released only after being fingerprinted and having a saliva sample taken for DNA testing. 

‘They said they had detained me as I looked suspicious because of how I was dressed. I wear a hijab.’  

Petrova has been in touch with rights organisations more than once and has asked journalists to write about her experiences, but publicity and support from voluntary organisations don’t stop the police. It’s obvious they have no grounds for detaining her (otherwise she’d be in a remand centre at the very least), but at the same time they haven’t formally infringed her legal rights, explaining that they detained her because of her suspicious mode of dress.            

Something similar happened to another Russian woman, Anastasia Dulevskaya, who recently converted to Islam and moved to Dagestan from Samara, a city in the Volga region of Russia. According to the human rights organisation Memorial, where she asked for help, Dulevskaya was called in for questioning at the Dagestan Counter-Extremism Centre. There she was asked why she had converted to Islam, whether she was a Salafi, whether she was a friend of Asiyalova and so on. Then they suggested she collaborate with them: infiltrate Islamic groups and report back. She was promised generous remuneration for this undercover activity, but refused.   

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A trolleybus torn to pieces by the explosion in Volgograd last year. Photo CC Правительство Волгоградской областиAnastasia then began to receive text messages on her phone and social network pages, telling her she should cooperate with the authorities, but she ignored them. In early January she was again detained and brought into a police station, and according to a statement she gave Memorial, there she was treated roughly and hit a couple of times; the police also tore her hijab off and shouted at her that she was a future suicide bomber. They released her on condition that she turn up the next day at the Counter-Extremism Centre with all her stuff, to be taken to the station and sent back home to Samara. 

On 3 January Dulevskaya came to the Memorial office and wrote a statement saying that she feared the police might set her up by planting drugs, arms or a ‘suicide belt’ in her luggage. That was her last contact with the organisation. She has since disappeared and a source in Dagestan’s Interior Ministry has stated that if she doesn’t reveal her whereabouts soon, they will start a search for her as a potential suicide bomber. 

A new investigation tool - the DNA database

According to Svetlana Isayeva of Dagestan Mothers for Human Rights, the authorities have been compiling a DNA database on all close relatives of known militants. ‘Legally, only a court can make people give blood or saliva for DNA testing,’ she says, ‘but the police and other government investigators use threats and blackmail to force relatives into it.’

The authorities have been compiling a DNA database on all close relatives of known militants.

Makhachkala resident Amina Umarova, a member of the Salafi community, is resisting their efforts:  ‘I’m afraid to go near the police station,’ she told us. ‘I’ve asked them to send me a written request, but they haven’t done it. The last time they came to my flat was ten days ago, but as soon as they ring the bell I phone the human rights people and the media. That seems to be stopping them.

She has good reason to fear the police. In 2007 the security forces abducted her husband Ramazan Umarov. ‘They broke in to the flat and took him away, and nobody has seen him since. In 2012 the European Court of Human Rights demanded that Russia pay his family 60,000 Euros in compensation: they concluded that there had been no investigation of his abduction and that the absence of any further information about him was sufficient proof of his death.’ 

A representative of Dagestan’s investigation department explained that the DNA database had been created to help police solve crimes of a terrorist nature. ‘Nobody is blackmailing anybody’, he said. ’We just try to persuade people to give a DNA sample. The database was begun in May 2013 and has already helped us investigate a number of crimes. If a suicide bomber blows themselves up, for example, it can sometimes take months to identify them. But if you get a DNA sample from the body you can compare it with the database and immediately narrow the range of potential suspects in the crime.’ 

Syrian finale?

At the end of February President Abdulatipov announced live on local TV that  ‘at some point the government of Dagestan had permitted the balance of law enforcement in the republic to swing towards the security services',  but that now more attention would be paid to the ideological battle, prevention and propaganda.

Meanwhile, Grigory Shvedov, editor in chief of the 'Caucasian Knot' website, in an interview published in Novoye delo (weekly publication in Dagestan), which also came out at the end of February, said that the security services' contribution to the battle with terrorism had proved successful. According to him, the number of killings in 2013 had dropped significantly by comparison with the preceding year: in 2013 there were such 341 murders, whereas in 2012 there were 405. 

But Shvedov warned that the success of such policies could only be short-term.  In the event of their continuation, Dagestan could find itself in the same situation as Syria, where government policy favoured the repression of radical Muslims.

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