Islamist Group Destroyed in Kabardino-Balkaria

Life and death of a radical Islamist leader from a small mountain village in the Caucasus.

Islamist Group Destroyed in Kabardino-Balkaria

Life and death of a radical Islamist leader from a small mountain village in the Caucasus.

Thursday, 3 February, 2005

A recent police assault on an apartment in the North Caucasian republic of Kabardino-Balkaria appears to have wiped out a radical Islamic cell with links to Chechnya. But it does not resolve the underlying problem of young people being drawn into undergound Islamic groups as a way of expressing frustration at social and economic deprivations.

The attack was the third by the security forces in a month on suspected Islamists in three republics of the North Caucasus.

Four different security agencies in Kabardino-Balkaria were involved in the operation to take out a group called Yarmuk. They tracked members down to two apartments on the edge of Nalchik, the republic’s capital. After a siege at a house on Severnaya Street lasting over 48 hours, three men and four women were killed in a final assault on February 27. All the bodies were identified, and on February 1 they were handed over to relatives for funerals the next day.

Among the dead men was 31-year-old Muslim Atayev, the leader of Yarmuk. His wife Sakinat Katsieva died alongside him, and there are concerns for the safety of their baby daughter.

According to official information released by Kabardino-Balkaria’s intelligence services, Atayev served in the unit of Chechen rebel commander Ruslan Gelayev from 2000 to 2002. He headed a unit of young men from Kabardino-Balkaria and took the nom-de-guerre Sayfullah.

In 2002, he returned to the North Caucasus after spending some time in Georgia, and the Russian federal authorities issued a warrant for his arrest.

According to the Kabardino-Balkaria interior ministry, eight policemen have been killed and seven others wounded in a series of clashes with Sayfullah since he became active in his home republic.

Atayev's group or "jamaat" (an Arabic word meaning “society” or “community”) as it is known, is also held responsible for an attack on the anti-narcotics agency in Nalchik in December 2004. When the attackers killed four policemen and made off with at least 200 firearms, it was clear the attack had been a carefully planned operation which could only have been carried out by a well-trained, organised group.

“That was when we began to wonder whether Yarmuk was for real,” said Anas Pshikhachev, who heads the Muslim Religious Association, an official clerical body close to the government in Kabardino-Balkaria.

The religious association represents the older generation of believers, and says it finds it hard to comprehend the radical trend among younger Muslims. Many of the latter shun the official mosque in Nalchik and follow instead a trend they call "True Islam".

A few years ago they would have been dubbed "Wahhabis", a reference to the strict Sunni trend dominant in Saudi Arabia, often used as a pejorative term for anyone deemed to hold fundamentalist views, but more recently the descriptive "Young Muslims" has come into use.

Younger Muslims who share a general sense of dissatisfaction with authority, society and moral standards often join one of several jamaats. Leaders of these groups have commonly studied Islam in an Arab country, or fought in Chechnya. They enjoy great authority among their followers.

Yarmuk is a typical jamaat, though it stands out for its alleged role in violence.

The core of any jamaat is formed by young men from the Balkar ethnic group, which mostly lives in the tough environment of the Caucasus mountains, whereas the Kabardin, ethnic Russians and others in this ethnic mixed republic populate the lowlands to the north.

The village of Kendelen - Atayev’s home village - is a good example of the kind of place the jamaat members come from. Members of Kendelen’s local administration say that it is one of the poorest villages in Kabardino-Balkaria, and 99 per cent of working-age adults, of a total population of 6,000, are considered to be unemployed, surviving on subsistence farming. Of the 70 young people who leave Kendelen’s school every year, 65 will go on to study elsewhere. None will come back.

“Before they were recruited, all these children were law-abiding,” said Valery Kanukov, the chief prosecutor in the Elbrus district where Kendelen is located. “Take Muslim Atayev – he was one of the best students at Kendelen’s school, and he got into Kabardino-Balkaria’s university.”

Kanukov sees the high unemployment levels and low incomes typical of mountain villages as the reason why it is easy for the jamaats to recruit new member here.

At the home of Muslim Atayev’s parents, all his relatives gathered to mourn their son - the men standing outside, the women inside. His mother Nadezhda says he was her only son, and the only thing he did wrong was to go and help his Chechen brothers. When he came back, she says, the local secret services would not leave him alone, “They blamed everything bad which happened in the republic on Muslim. No one cared whether he was guilty or not. He fought in Chechnya, so that meant he had to be at fault.”

It is still unclear what became of Atayev's eight-month-old daughter Leila. The prosecutor in Nalchik has said that Atayev had a two-year-old son, who has been handed over to relatives and is now with his grandmother in Kendelen.

The mothers of both Atayev and his wife Katsieva told IWPR that they did not have their granddaughter.

Nadezhda Atayeva took out a photograph of the child, saying her son and daughter-in-law had telephoned relatives during the siege, on the night before the final assault, to say the baby was with them but they hoped they would be allowed to pass her out through the door before any attack took place.

The Atayev parents live in hope that the little girl has survived. They have written to the prosecutor, asking him to return Leila to them, alive or dead. His office publicly denies that any such request has been made.

An IWPR correspondent observed the January 27 assault from 100 metres away, and witnessed special forces carrying a stretcher on which there was something wrapped in white material out of the besieged building an hour and a half before the end of the operation. The bundle looked like the body of a child. They put it into a police car with dark-tinted windows.

Meanwhile, a statement has appeared on the radical Chechen website Kavkaz-Centre quoting Yarmuk as saying it still has military capability and has already chosen a new leader. It also denied the prosecutor’s allegations that it was behind the attack on the drugs squad. The website said three automatic rifles, two pistols and five grenades found in the flats of the Yarmuk leaders were not part of the cache from the December attack.

Fatima Tlisova is a correspondent for Novaya Gazeta and an IWPR contributor in Kabardino-Balkaria.

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