After bin Laden’s Death, Al-Qaeda Turns to the North Caucasus

Ariel Cohen /

After Osama bin Laden’s death, it is clear that the war on terrorism is not over.

Ayman al-Zawahiri, the former al-Qaeda’s number two, may take over as bin Laden’s heir, unless the interim operations leader Saif al-Adel, the former Egyptian commando with Iranian ties, gets the job. In the meantime, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the most active and dangerous of al-Qaeda affiliate terrorist organizations, has embarked upon expanding the global reach of its supporters. AQAP recently translated al-Qaeda’s online journal Inspire into Russian in an effort to attract the jihadis from the embattled North Caucasus and other Muslim-populated parts of Russia.

North Caucasus terrorists have been using radical Salafi Islam to recruit disgruntled youth who grew up on the battlefields of the two Chechen wars (1994–1996 and 1999–2004). One of the first to do that, Shamil Basayev, was the mastermind of the Dubrovka and Beslan hostage takings. His successor, Doku Umarov, managed to strengthen the ties with local Islamic communities and claimed the establishment of the “Caucasus Emirate,” a pan-Caucasus terrorist group fighting “jihad against the infidels” and for an Islamic emirate consisting of all the North Caucasus.

Umarov launched an even greater terror campaign and is allegedly behind for the suicide bombing at the Domodedovo Airport in January, two suicide bombings in Moscow in March 2010, and the Nevsky Express bombing in November 2009. The Caucasus Emirate is one of the most active terrorist battlefronts today and is responsible for the daily attacks on innocent civilians, police stations, and government offices throughout Russia and the Caucasus.

The North Caucasus has been on al-Qaeda’s radar screen for a decade and a half. Zawahiri visited the region in mid-1990s and was arrested (and subsequently released) by the Russians—for reasons which are still unclear. He identified the Caucasus as one of the primary fronts in the war against Russia and the West.

Furthermore, Umarov made clear that Russia and the Caucasus are an integral part of the global “jihad,” saying that “after the expulsion of infidels we must take back all of the historical lands of the Muslims and their borders are located outside of Caucasus” and “all those who have attacked Muslims, wherever they are, are our enemies!” This means Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Russian lands along the Volga River, the Urals region, and vast parts of Siberia. Russia conquered these vast swaths of its empire from Muslims in Europe and Asia from the 16th through the 19th centuries.

Umarov received much support from al-Qaeda and other extremist organizations, including funding from Middle Eastern and central Asian sources. Some of his closest comrades-in-arms were emissaries of al-Qaeda—for example, Moganned, who arrived in Chechnya in 1999, and Abdulla Kurd, the international coordinator of his terror cells. Russian security forces killed both of them in counterterrorist operations in the spring of 2011.

Umarov recently reaffirmed his commitment to the global jihad in an interview and gave an answer to those who presumed that the terrorists in the North Caucasus have been weakened by bin Laden’s death. He reaffirmed that the battlefield is not just the Caucasus but also “the whole Russia.” Furthermore, he stated that the death of the leaders of the jihad (such as bin Laden) cannot stop the revival of Islam.

After bin Laden’s death, al-Qaeda is clearly committed to expand its theaters of operations and reaching out to affiliates, including those in Russia. This is hardly surprising, as Chechen terrorists fight in Afghanistan alongside al-Qaeda and were even jailed in Guantanamo.

It is time for the Kremlin to recognize this threat and stop the usual propaganda narrative of anti-Americanism. As for the United States, we should continue our commitment to the war on terrorism and prevent al-Qaeda affiliates to find a new safe haven and new allies in the poorly governed North Caucasus.

Co-Authored by Janos Bako