When religion began to reemerge in Russia as the Soviet Union crumbled in the late 1980s, Salafism — a puritanical form of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia — began to drift here through Afghanistan. The disillusionment and chaos of the 1990s as Russia struggled to replace communism with democracy provided fertile ground for it to take hold.
Salafis believe a Muslim has a direct relationship with God and should study the words of the prophet Muhammad. Sufis in Dagestan follow the instruction of their sheiks, who stand between them and God and have anywhere from 500 to 20,000 deeply loyal followers.
Salafis dislike the Sufi alliance with the government. Sufis run the government-sanctioned Spiritual Board of Muslims, to which the official clergy belong. They also support a secular state. Salafis do not.
“Whether he’s Sufi or Salafi,” Abu Umar said, “if a man is not dreaming about sharia, he’s not a Muslim.”
Violent and unsolved deaths have become a routine part of life here. At a Makhachkala sports center, a tiny grandmother named Nisakhan Magomedova who presides over the front desk takes a rat-a-tat-tat pose as she describes how the director of the judo program was gunned down recently, just after getting a bigger job at another club, targeted perhaps by a professional rival.
Residents can point out the spot at the beach where a bomb went off last year, a protest against women in bathing suits that cost one woman her leg.
Police have killed 100 people they identified as rebels since the beginning of the year, Interior Ministry officials said in June, and human rights activists accuse police of killing first and then finding a crime to assign to the body.
Local journalists estimate that 1,000 to 1,500 armed men are in the forest at any one time, with perhaps 5,000 others prepared to join them. The forest shelters organized terrorism as well — the U.S. government has offered a $5 million reward for information leading to Doku Umarov, a Chechen terrorist with al-Qaeda connections suspected of hiding in Dagestan who has been accused of terrorist attacks on Moscow.
In Dagestan, all policemen are targets, because they represent government authority and because they are accused of treating the population brutally. In one Makhachkala district, police line up for morning roll call behind heavy fortifications, yards from where a suicide bomber smashed into a gate, only to be rammed by a police van. Six police officers died as both vehicles exploded.
“Property is being divided” as it was in the U.S. era of the robber baron, said Abrek Aliev, the head of protocol for the city of Makhachkala.
Greeting visitors with sweet fresh apricots, dark red cherries and juicy local strawberries, he opens a bottle of cognac in a City Hall anteroom and offers a toast to the mayor’s health.