Chechnya says Islamic warlord is dead. Does it matter for Sochi?

Experts warn that Chechnya's militants can easily find new leadership if the oft-reported death of Doku Umarov, who has threatened attacks on the Olympic Games, is finally true.

The Kavkaz Center/AP/File
A video still from Feb. 2011 shows insurgent leader Doku Umarov claiming responsibility for a deadly suicide bombing at Russia's largest airport in Jan. 2011. Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov said on his Instagram account that Umarov is dead, though Russian security agencies have declined to confirm the claim.

The pro-Moscow leader of Chechnya, President Ramzan Kadyrov, says that Chechen Islamist warlord Doku Umarov, who is often called "Russia's Osama bin Laden," is dead and can no longer pose a terror threat to the upcoming Sochi Winter Olympics.

The north Caucasian jihadi network headed by Mr. Umarov is thought to have been behind a string of terrorist attacks in Russia's heartland stretching back at least four years. Last summer Umarov issued a video warning that he had set plans in motion to disrupt the upcoming Sochi Winter Games with acts of mass terrorism.

Though no one has yet claimed responsibility for three suicide bombings in the Russian city of Volgograd, which killed 40 people late last year, experts say they look a lot like Umarov's threat beginning to unfold.

Chechen President Kadyrov is most responsible for hunting down the arch-terrorist "emir" of the "Caucasus emirate," who is thought to be hiding out somewhere in the high Caucasus mountains on Chechen territory.

Kadyrov has mistakenly claimed to have killed Umarov before but this time he insists there is hard evidence that the Islamist chieftain was killed in a gunfight with Chechen security forces – although there is still no body.

"Journalists ask me whether Doku Umarov can disrupt the Olympics. I have told them he is dead ... so all this talk of a threat to the Olympics in Sochi is totally groundless," Kadyrov announced on his official Instagram account Thursday.

According to Kadyrov, his security police have intercepted telephone conversations between two militant leaders in the insurgency-wracked republics of Kabardino-Balkaria and Dagestan, in which they commiserate about Umarov's death and discuss the need to elect a new leader.

"However, the elimination of Doku Umarov doesn't mean the menace of world terrorism has disappeared.... We believe the measures [to combat it] need to be tough, even cruel," Kadyrov added.

But Russian secret services have pointedly declined to confirm Kadyrov's claim and Russian security experts say it may not even matter whether Umarov is dead or not.

"Umarov has been killed and buried several times already, so this information should be taken with a grain of salt," says Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the independent Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. "Kadyrov has a strong interest in demonstrating that he is dealing with this problem. But Umarov had become a largely symbolic figure," like the former Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, and it may make little difference even if he is gone, Mr. Makarkin says.

Umarov was the last separatist president of the breakaway republic of Chechnya, inheriting the post after all the previous leaders had been killed by Russian security forces. Instead of continuing in the Chechen nationalist traditions of his predecessors, Umarov oversaw a shift to Islamist ideology, which sees no borders or ethnic differences among the many Muslim peoples inhabiting the seven republics that make up Russia's turbulent north Caucasus zone. Inspired by the tactics of Middle Eastern jihadis, he also initiated a switch among his followers from armed military formations to isolated terrorist cells that utilize suicide bombers and are capable of acting independently.

"The terrorist threat today consists of networks of small groupings that work autonomously," says Makarkin.

"If one group is liquidated, there are always others. It is far more difficult to fight them than the big rebel units of the past. And new people have come into the ranks, many of whom were still schoolchildren during the second Chechen war. Specific leaders come and go, but the reproduction of fanatics continues," Makarkin adds.

Andrei Soldatov, an expert on Russian security issues and editor of the online journal says that Russian security forces kill a top leader of the Islamist insurgency in the strife-torn republic of Dagestan, on average, about once every 8 months.

"The structures that insurgents have evolved are extremely adaptable. They easily replace lost leaders," he says.

Mr. Soldatov says that Russian and Western media have spun the Doku Umarov legend a little too enthusiastically, and "it may be that he isn't really the mastermind behind all the terrorist acts" shaking the north Caucasus.

All the publicity given to Umarov may have the effect of making younger jihadis coming up through the ranks hungry for the same kind of attention, he adds.

"Especially during the Olympics, announcing that Doku Umarov is dead could prove counterproductive. It might encourage some young militants that this is the time to go out and make their mark. So, true or not, maybe loud declarations about it are not the best idea," he says.

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