Chechen Rebels Name Successor

Maskhadov chose little-known cleric as his replacement in spite of concerns over his more radical views.

Chechen Rebels Name Successor

Maskhadov chose little-known cleric as his replacement in spite of concerns over his more radical views.

Friday, 18 November, 2005

Abdul-Khalim Saidulayev - the man named as successor to Chechen rebel president Aslan Maskhadov, killed by Russian forces on March 8 - is a very different figure from his predecessor.


Saidulayev was named as leader of the State Defence Council and therefore de facto rebel leader immediately after Maskhadov’s death. He had hitherto held the post of the head of the Shariah Court within the Chechen rebel movement and was, according to two of Maskhadov’s envoys abroad, chosen by the former leader himself.


“He was one of those closest to Aslan,” said Akhmed Zakayev, who is in exile in London.


Umar Khambiev, the main envoy of the former president, said that Maskhadov had said that if something happened to him, Saidulayev would inherit his powers.


The new leader’s first “appeal to the Chechen people” - which appeared on the Islamist website Kavkaz Center - gives little clue to his plans. He calls Maskhadov a “shahid”, or martyr, in the fight for Chechen independence and says that policy will not change.


He says that “the leadership of the Chechen state will from now on have the closest contacts and friendly relations with the whole civilised world but its ideology must reflect the world-view of the Muslim people of Chechnya”.


However very few Chechens, even those associated with the rebels, know Saidulayev well. His appointment means that the dominant figure amongst the rebels is now notorious commander Shamil Basayev.


“I was told that there was such a person [as Saidulayev] and they even named his position, head of the Shariah court, but they did not mention his name,” said Magomed, a former fighter who has not lost touch with his former comrades-in-arms.


Maskhadov and Saidulayev are very different in age, outlook and conviction.


“Maskhadov was not only a Soviet officer but also one of the Russian army,” said a university lecturer in Grozny. “He was a secular man and not a radical and he was ready for serious compromises with the Russian side so as to end the war.


“Now, after his death, it will be hard to find a man amongst the separatists who will be as open and ready for negotiations. The chances of a political settlement of this conflict have significantly reduced, or maybe vanished altogether.”


Saidulayev, 37, is from the town of Argun. He is reported to have been the head of a so-called “jamaat” (the term comes from the Arabic word for group or community) which, unusually, did not engage in combat, but had a religious role.


The Chechen Islamist website Kavkaz Center records that Saidulayev studied in the literature department of Grozny university, but did not finish his studies because of the outbreak of war.


According to locals in Argun, he is a deeply religious man, who was for a time imam of a mosque there. He reportedly headed a small group of fighters during the first Chechen war of 1994-96 and then devoted his time to a serious study of Islam.


“Despite his relatively young age, Saidulayev enjoyed authority and respect, especially among young people,” said Vakha Yashurkayev, who lives in Argun.


“He preached, called for spiritual cleansing and condemned behaviour such as kidnapping. Now of course people will try to blacken his name, call him a Wahhabi [Islamic fundamentalist], a kidnapper, an al-Qaeda supporter and so on - but I don’t think that corresponds to reality.”


Soon after he was appointed there were several reports that Saidulayev came from Saudi Arabia, however Argun residents say he comes from their town and has only been to Saudi Arabia once, when performing the hajj.


Most agree that Saidulayev is closer to the radical wing of the Chechen rebels, personified by men such as Basayev – who claimed responsibility for the attack on Beslan School No. 1 last September - and Doku Umarov, than to the more moderate views expressed by Maskhadov.


This reflects a shift of power that, observers say, had already taken place before Maskhadov’s death as almost all guerrilla operations conducted in Chechnya are carried out by fighters loyal to these two men.


“It’s hard to say how many people Basayev and Umarov have and where they are based,” said Magomed. “But I can say that for certain that they are extremely well-trained and battle-fit. Each of them is equivalent to say 50 federal soldiers.”


Kommersant newspaper, which has good sources in Chechnya, reported that Maskhadov had been wary of Saidulayev, whom he thought of as an Islamic radical, but had changed this opinion shortly before his death and he had named him as his successor as a “forced measure”.


“Not long before Maskhdov’s death, he was forced to admit that ‘Only a radical can unite the resistance around himself in the current situation’. That explains his choice,” said Kommersant.


“There are practically no ‘moderate’ leaders left on the Ichkerian [pro-independence] side, if there ever were,” said Valery Korostelev, who works for the military command in Grozny.


“If in the first military campaign [rebel president Jokhar] Dudayev’s units were called regiments, battalions, volunteer units, then their whole structure now consists of so-called ‘jamaats’.


“These are groups of an openly Wahhabi nature. Now with the appointment of the formal leader Saidulayev, who is basically a Wahhabi, they will strengthen their positions even more and will dictate their terms.”


With Maskhadov gone, many of those who were associated with him will now face the choice of whether to join the groups loyal to Basayev or Umarov. Others may well cross over to the side of pro-Moscow deputy prime minister Ramzan Kadyrov and join his security service, which contains many former fighters.


Many are now anticipating an attempted attack or extremist incident designed to show that the rebel movement is still in business.


“They need to show that the death of Maskhadov has not dismayed them or divided them,” said Korostelev.


“So they will try to carry out a series of big operations to advertise themselves. Basayev will be the leader and the others, including the new ‘president’ will just carry out his orders.”


However, Chechen political analyst Edilbek Khasmagomadov believes that essentially very little has changed with the death of the rebel president. “For a long time the conflict has had little to do with Maskhadov,” he said. “Basayev was in charge of the military side. And all those structures are still in place and have kept their links with one another.


“Maskhadov’s death was a blow for those who saw a possible political resolution of the conflict. Now that chance has gone. It will only be possible to come back to it if something changes militarily.”


Kazbek Tsurayev is a correspondent for Chechenskoe Obshchestvo newspaper.


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