MOSCOW — The reported death of Chechen rebel chief Doku Umarov, Russia’s most famous wanted man, is unlikely to derail his Islamist movement, which draws its strength more from religious fervor than from personal charisma at the top.
Umarov was the last head of the would-be insurgent government of Chechnya, and when that collapsed in 2007, he turned to Islamist jihad in a quest to establish a caliphate across the North Caucasus. His movement has been a major factor in a low-level war, centered in Dagestan, that inflicts hundreds of casualties on Russian forces, year after year.
Umarov’s followers have dispersed into isolated cells, and that leads analysts here to believe that his death — if, in fact, it occurred — may not do much to tamp down Russia’s jihadist movement.
Umarov, 49, may still be alive. Or he may have died some time ago. Wounded in 2000 in a fight with Russian forces, he was known to be in poor health, and his death has been reported many times in the past. The Islamic Emirate of the Caucasus announced Tuesday that Umarov had become a “martyr” but offered no details.
The Kremlin-backed leader of the current Chechen government, Ramzan Kadyrov, said in January that an intercepted phone call strongly suggested that Umarov was already dead at that time.
“The terrorist mouthpiece reports that Doku Umarov is dead!” Kadyrov wrote on his Instagram account Tuesday. “Now it is confirmed by the rats themselves.”
Russian news agencies said security services would not confirm Umarov’s death.
Umarov’s movement said it was behind the November 2009 bombing of a train traveling between Moscow and St. Petersburg that left 26 dead; the March 2010 suicide bombings in the Moscow Metro, which killed at least 39; and a suicide bombing at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport in 2011, which killed at least 37 people. Umarov’s group was suspected of involvement in three bombings in the city of Volgograd last year that killed 41 people.
In February 2012, Umarov had declared a “moratorium” on attacking civilian targets in Russia. Sergei Markedonov of the Center for Political Technologies said Umarov was probably hoping to gain some approval in the United States by doing so. But he remained on a U.S. terrorist watch list, and the Boston Marathon bombing in April ended any chance for American sympathy with the North Caucasus movement. The suspects in that case, brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, had roots in Chechnya and neighboring Dagestan.
They were not known to have connections to the Caucasus Emirate but may well have drawn inspiration from its example.
In June, Umarov released a video calling for an end to the moratorium and a campaign to attack the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Although the Volgograd bombings may have been connected to that campaign, the Olympic Games were held last month without disruption.
But a low-level war between government forces and jihadists has continued unabated in Dagestan, which has become more turbulent than Chechnya to its west. About 500 people were killed there in 2013. The appeal of religious extremism, coupled with resentment at the heavy-handed tactics of the government, fuels the conflict.
Umarov has been at the center of one of the recent disputes between Russia and Ukraine. Moscow accused Ukrainian right-wing nationalist leader Dmytro Yarosh of calling on Umarov to attack Russia. Yarosh denies it. Russia has opened a criminal proceeding against him, though he is in Kiev.
Umarov’s role in the North Caucasus fighting goes back to 1994, when he joined the army of Chechnya’s breakaway government as it fought the first of two wars with Moscow.
The sharia judge of the Caucasus Emirate, identified as Ali Abu Muhammad, has been elected as the new emir, according to a video posted online Tuesday.