Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Kavkaz Center and the Jihadist Threat, by Giovanni Giacalone

The Kavkaz Center and the Jihadist Threat

The center of Caucasian jihadist media propaganda is located in Europe and it is under the eyes of several European governments who seem to be fully aware of it.
The Kavzkaz Center (Кавказ-центр) is a private website that has been active on the scene for almost two decades. According to its mission the objective of the site is to report events related to Chechnya and to provide international news agencies with news-letters, background information and assistance in making independent journalistic work in Caucasus.

How Western medias define the Kavkaz Center
Western institutes and media such as the Jamestown Foundation and the Guardian have often referred to the Kavkaz Center as “a Chechen separatist website”  or  “a pro-independence website”.[1] [2] [3] [4] [5]
In August 2009, after the Nazran terror attack, the Italian newspaper “La Repubblica” refered to it in the following way:
“….the site already used by the Chechen secessionists to claim responsibility for the takeover of the Dubrovka theater in Moscow and the Beslan school”. [6]
In March 2014, when the Kavkaz Center had reported the death of Caucasian jihadist terror boss Doku Umarov (Доку Хаматович Умаров) , defining him a “martyr”, Fox News and the BBC were still careful to define the center as “the website of Islamic militant groups in Russia's North Caucasus”, while the Los Angeles times preferred the term “insurgent website”. [7] [8]
In these specific last cases related to 2014 the facts are particularly interesting since by this time the Volgograd bombings and the Boston marathon attack, all carried out by the so called “Chechen separatist”, had already occurred.
The Volgograd attacks that took place on December 29th  and 30th 2013 clearly targeted civilians and caused 32 death and about 100 injuries. At the time the Kavkaz Center defined the event as “martyrdom attack”.[9]
In the case of the Boston Marathon bombing, the Kavkaz center did not celebrate the attack, no relations to “martyrdom” but rather about a potential inside job orchestrated by the FBI. [10]
Even though there is still no universally accepted definition of terrorism, it is still possible to agree that an attack that has the clear and direct objective of murdering civilians can be defined as a “terror attack” and consequently those who take an active part in it or who support the attack can be defined as “terrorists”, so it is more than legitimate to ponder why some Western medias are so reluctant in using such term.
Origin and development of the Kavkaz Center
The Kavkaz Center website was created and headed in March 1999 in the city of Grozny, Checnhya, by Movladi Udugov (Мовлади Саидарбиевич Удугов), a skilled propagandist, former Minister of Information of Chechnya, leader of the national information service. The website now publishes in four languages: Russian, English, Turkish and Arabic, which gives a clear idea of its audience. It is possible to divide the ideological development of the Kavkaz Center in three phases.
A first phase began when the site initially supported the independence of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria from the Russian Federation. In such phase the religious element was not so evident but rather “masked” behind separatist tasks.
In the second phase the site moved to jihadist propaganda, becoming the news portal of the Caucasian Emirate (Кавказский Эмират), a jihadist group that partially succeeded the secessionist Chechen Republic of Ichkeria.
Officially announced in October 2007, the Emirate has the objective of establishing an Islamic emirate in the Caucasus region, independent from the Russian Federation. Former president of Ichkeria, Doku Umarov, became its first emir and was killed, probably due to poisoning, in September 2013; he was replaced by Ali Abu Muhammad al-Dagestani, real name Aliaskhab Alibulatovich Kebekov (Али Абу-Мухаммад). [11] [12]
The Caucasus Emirate and its militants were responsible for numerous attacks that targeted non-Muslims but also moderate Muslims who were considered enemies by the jihadists, such as the Sufis.
With the breakout of the war in Ukraine and the spread of ISIL (Islamic state of Iraq and the Levant) in Iraq the Kavkaz Center entered a third phase and took interesting positions on such issues.
In June 2014 the hostilities between the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Syrian brigades have emphasized an already existing friction between rival North Caucasian factions in Syria, specifically Umar al-Chechen’s (Омар Чеченский) faction in ISIL and his former brigade Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, which considers itself aligned to the Caucasus Emirate.
On June 24th 2014 the site posted a video where the new leader of the Caucasus Emirate, Abu Muhammad al-Dagestani discussed the role of Chechen-led faction Jaish al-Muhajireen wal Ansar (Army of Emigrants and Supporters, AES), which called itself the Imarat Kavkaz (Caucasus Emirate) in Syria. He expressed the opinion that, rather than setting up an independent group in Syria, North Caucasian fighters should have joined the oldest and most legitimate group, which is Jabhat an-Nusra (Victory Front).
Regarding the decision by Umar al-Chechen of joining ISIL, Abu Muhammad al-Dagestani said that even though he is a “sincere brother”, it was clearly a mistake for him to cross over to ISIL. He also added that Umar al-Chechen should not be blamed for the choice in order not to cause fitna among the ummah (discord among the community). Abu Muhammad advised Umar al-Chechen to return to AES and take the same position as the Caucasus Emirate in Syria. [13] [14]
On the Ukranian scenario, it is obvious how Kavkaz Center took position in favor of the new Ukrainian government and in an article posted on April 30th 2014 it even claimed to have warned the Ukrainian government of a potential invasion by Russian troops, with the title: “Ukraine reacted to Kavkaz Center warning and put army on full alert”:
“Ukrainian armed forces were put on full alert due to a threat of a Russian attack, acting president Alexander Turchinov said on Wednesday at a meeting with the heads of regional state administrations in Kiev, reports the news agency UNIAN. According to Turchynov, as reported by the agency, now there is a real danger of "continental war" by Russia against Ukraine”.
A few paragraphs underneath it emphasized:
“It is to be mentioned in this context that the Turchinov’s statement appeared in less than a day after the Kavkaz Center sources in the Command of the Mujahideen of the Caucasus Emirate reported intelligence data on possible Kremlin's plans to occupy Kiev”. [15]
In other occasions Kavkaz Center has posted articles where European and American government staff take strong positions against Russia, with evident extreme tones, such as this one:
“Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said on arrival at an EU summit that Russia was waging war against Ukraine, in which Ukraine was "fighting for the whole Europe". She believes that more reaction is to be expected from the NATO. "It is necessary to provide military support and as much as possible sanctions against Russia... Ukraine is fighting for the whole Europe, so Lithuania is ready to help Ukraine to fight this war, to defend against Russia", Grybauskaite said”. [16]
In another article published on September 2nd 2014 the website quoted Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former adviser to President Jimmy Carter in an interview with CNN: “The Russian tanks crossing the border. There's Russian artillery firing across the border. And there they are pro-Russian militants who are being armed by the Russians. It is a serious threat”. [17]
In general it is easy to notice how articles in favor of Ukraine have progressively increased in the last months. On September 2nd 2014 the main article on the homepage of Kavkaz Center was the one on Brzezinski’s interview on a Polish television channel and two more dealt with support for Ukraine and strong attacks on Russia; quite an interesting development for a website that initially advocated Chechen separatism.
Movladi Udugov, the mastermind of the Kavkaz Center
Movladi Saidarbievich Udugov (Мовлади Саидарбиевич Удугов), born in 1962 in Chechnya, after an unsuccessful ran for president of Chechnya in the 1997 elections, he became the first Prime Minister of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria as well as Minister of Information under the government of Aslan Maskhadov.
In August 1997, Udugov founded the Islamic Umma party, uniting a number of political movements in Chechnya and neighbouring Dagestan. In 1998, together with Shamil Basayev (Шамиль Салманович Басаев) and several other radical Chechen and Dagestani figures, Udugov created the Congress of the Peoples of Ichkeria and Dagestan. In March 1999, Udugov helped to create Kavkaz Center.[18]
Russian authorities accused him of being one of the main organizers of the Chechen rebel-led attack on Dagestan in August 1999, and Udugov is wanted by the Russian federal government since March 20, 2000, accused of having violated Article 279 of Russia's Criminal Code, which outlaws "armed uprisings. [19]
When the Second Chechen War started in 1999, Udugov fled Chechnya and might have travelled to Afghanistan, Scandinavia, Turkey and the Persian Gulf.
According to sources, Udugov has been hiding in Turkey, where he is said to have often changed home address in the Istanbul area and to have used different mobile phone numbers, including three registered in Turkey, one registered in the United Kingdom and one in the United Arab Emirates. Always according to sources he is known to have established a company in the Emirates that deals with aircraft spare parts.
Northern Europe, the safe haven for Kavkaz Center
The whereabouts of the Kavkaz Center servers and central offices are still very controversial. In 2003 the Estonian police closed its server and in September 2004 a server hosting the website, located in Lithuania, was shut down by local authorities, under pressure from Russia, on hate speech charges, after a letter from the Chechen rebel commander Shamil Basayev claiming responsibility for the Beslan school massacre and a series of photos from the preparations for the attack were published on the site.
The website later re-opened on a webserver at the Internet service provider PRQ, in Sweden, and then in April 2008 it moved to an Estonian server, supplied by the AS Starman.
Shortly after that the Kavkaz Center again surfaced in Finland, with the support of the local businessman Michael Sturshe. After that the Finnish authorities closed down the so-called “business project”, in 2012 the Kavkaz Center website popped up in Sweden again but the current location is not certain.
It is not easy to keep an exact track of the Kavkaz Center hosting history because several European countries granted refuge to the Kavkaz Center at different times. Kavkaz Center portal was put on the sanctions list of the UN Security Council in July of 2011. Despite that, the Kavkaz Center website continued its work. In December 2012 Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, asked Sweden to ban the Kavkaz Center website and handover a member of the radical Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, Eldar Zamzin, to Russia.[20] [21]
According to sources, today the main offices of the Kavkaz Center are located in Finland; Janus Putkonen, editor in chief of “Verkkomedia”, claimed in June 2013:
“Until now, the radical terrorist website "Kavkaz-Center" is located in Finland under the special political and even governmental protection. I think that soon it will stop. Given the many victims of the terrorist attack in the U.S., hardly anyone dare to call "Kavkaz-Center" human rights organization. It should be noted that this site has been closed for many years. However, our government does not want to recognize the obvious: operating in Chechnya rebels and their foreign accomplices linked to international terrorists”. [22]
According to the Strategic Culture Foundation (SCF), a think-tank specialized in Eurasian affairs, Chechen jihadist Aslambek Khunchukayev, is now under protection of the Finnish government. He is on the Interpol’s wanted list for dozens of committed crimes, including terrorism, fraud, human trade, but he is also free to move around as he wishes.  He was recently pictured giving an interview to Georgian PiK TV-channel on the rooftop of the Kavkaz Center’s Helsinki office. [23] [24] [25]
The Kavkaz Center is organized in two areas of activities, an external and an internal. The internal area deals with an anti-Russian project and has two sectors: southern and northern.
The southern sector focuses on partnership with Turkey. It is not a case that Islam Matsiev, the website’s administrator, came to Finland from Turkey.
Turkey is also home to the IHH (Humanitarian Relief Foundation) which, according to sources, has collected funds in Turkey, Dubai, United States, United Kingdom and France in favor of the Chechen jihadists.
The IHH website itself clearly describes how in 2006 a funeral prayer was organized at the Fatih mosque in Istanbul to remember Shamil Basayev and for the occasion IHH chairman Bülent Yıldırım addressed to the attendees saying:
“Sinister Putin called Turkey after the death of Basayev and asked what they could do for Palestine. We know that his real intention is to suppress the reaction of Muslims against Russia over the death of Basayev. The whole world united and helped Russia to kill Basayev as they did to exterminate Dudayev in the past. Israel is advising Russia to build a fence in Chechnya to eliminate Chechen threat as it did in Palestine. Russia has applied to become a member of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC). Chechens, however, are asking Muslims countries how they could accept a country that has so far killed over 300,000 people, 46,000 of them children, to the OIC. Basayev had previously sent letters to heads of Muslims states saying what was happening in Chechnya and calling on them to stop Russia. If Muslim leaders had opposed Russia then, so many civilians would have not been killed in Chechnya.”  [26]
According to the Meir Amit Center for counter-terror the IHH had direct links with operatives in the Chechen area, in their transfer of funds and it also provided support to jihadists heading for Bosnia in the 90’s. [27]
In January 2014 the offices of the IHH were raided by Turkish police during an anti al-Qaeda operation that took place in six different provinces and that brought to the detention of 28 people.
The IHH released an official press statement on the same day, with General Secretary Yaşar Kutluay saying that the operation had the task of preventing the IHH from sending humanitarian aid to Syria. [28]
Always according to SCF, the representatives for the Kavkaz Center in Turkey are Musa Itayev and Islam Mahauri, whose brother, Rustam, served as personal bodyguard for Doku Umarov.
The northern sector is located in Scandinavia, precisely in Sweden and Finland. The website’s activities are supported by the Finnish-Russian Civil Forum (Finrosforum, Suomalais-venalainen kansalaisfoorumi) and Pro-Caucasus, a Sweden registered association supported by Soros Fund, which has vast interests in Finland.
The SCF explains how the Kavkaz Center’s staff gets access to Finnish special services information thanks to the support of Heidi Hautala and Foreign Ministry’s special advisor Tarja Kantola, the head of Finrosforum.
The Foundation has also published photos of the presumed Kavkaz Center administrator  Islam Tumsoev, whose real name according to their sources is Islam Matsiev, speaking at the press-conference organized by Mikael Storsjo and Heidi Hautala, whose names also appear in the Finrosforum registration documents.
Another key-figure in the Kavkaz Center business is Finnish IT entrepreneur and activist Mikael Storsjö who has hosted on his own servers the Kavkaz Center website and who was also involved in a court case, in which he was found guilty of arranging illegal entry into Finland of 25 Chechens. [29] [30] [31] [32]
In October 2004, when the Lithuanian government banned the Kavkaz Center website, Storsjö moved the website to his server in Finland before being closed down by Finnish authorities; at that point Storsjö might have moved the server back to Sweden. [33]
It is not clear where the servers are currently located but Russian authorities have no doubt about the fact that the HQ of the Kavkaz Center is still in Finland.  The whereabouts of Movladi Udugov are also uncertain; he might still be in Turkey, or maybe in Scandinavia or even in western Ukraine, several options remain open.
In general it is interesting to notice how the Kavkaz Center changed its ideological and operational methodology throughout time and managed to find a strong base in Europe soon after the Second Chechen War began. It consolidated its European links, creating a “bridge” between the Caucasus, Turkey, Sweden and Finland. At this point it is worth pondering about potential new connections that could be established in Europe, especially in relation to the Ukrainian crisis and the ISIL counter-measures.

Giovanni Giacalone is an Italian researcher and analyst in Islamic radicalism, lives in Milan where he studies political Islam in Europe with a close look at issues linked to integration, radicalism and relations between the various European Institutions and the Islamic organizations present in Europe.He wrote this article in English for RIMSE.

[6]   “La rivendicazione è apparsa in mattinata sul sito del Kavkaz Center, già usato dagli indipendentisti ceceni per attribuirsi la responsabilità della presa del teatro Duvrovka di Mosca o della scuola di Beslan”.
[19] AFP: Moscow Demands that Turkey Extradite Udugov: MOSCOW, May 5, 2000 -- (Agence France Presse)

[32] Янгляева М.М., Хизриева Г.А., “Ненависть к Путину  или  особенности финского политического постмодернизма: на  материале финской прессы.