The Effectiveness of Leadership Decapitation: A Caucasus Emirate Case Study

The Effectiveness of Leadership Decapitation:  A Caucasus Emirate Case Study

With the 2014 Sochi Olympics set to kick off on February 7 all eyes will be on Russia’s ability to provide security to the millions of attendees and participants in the Winter Games.  Sochi is located a few hundred kilometers from the North Caucasus, a breeding ground for Islamic militants involved in a decades long struggle against the Russian Federation.  The Caucasus Emirate, the umbrella group for the Jihadist militants operating in the six provinces of the North Caucasus, have publicly promised to launch attacks during the Olympic games, causing international governments to set their threat levels as high as they can go.

Putin, however, has declared that the Sochi Olympics will be free from terrorism and has launched an aggressive counter-terror campaign to eliminate the threat.  Leadership decapitation, the practice of dismantling a terrorist organization by capturing or killing its leaders, is at the heart of Putin’s strategy and the body count of Caucasus Emirate militant leaders continues to pile up in the weeks leading to the Olympic games.

Leadership decapitation, while widely accepted and used by international governments to combat terrorist organization, has been called into question for its effectiveness at thwarting terrorist attacks.  Russia’s campaign against the Caucasus Emirate and the results of the Sochi Olympics will prove crucial to the debate surrounding the go-to counter-terror strategy.  Will the deaths of Caucasus Emirate’s leaders render the organization incapable of launching the attacks that they have threatened, or will the Sochi Olympics transform into a playground for terrorists asserting the continued strength and presence of the Global Jihad?  The events that transpire in Russia between February 7th and February 23rd will provide some answers.

Leadership Decapitation

In 2009, Jenna Jordan published “When Head’s Roll: Assessing the Effectiveness of Leadership Decapitation”, one of the first large-scale empirical studies of the impact of leadership decapitation on terrorist groups.  Her quantitative analysis examined 298 cases of leadership decapitation over a 60-year period.  She found that the rate of organizational decline following the removal of a terrorist organization’s leadership was less than the decline of organizations that had not been the subject of a leadership decapitation campaign, i.e. killing or capturing terrorist leaders was largely counter-productive.  The study found that the negative consequences of leadership decapitation, which include an upsurge in violent attacks, especially rang true in terrorist organizations driven by religious motivations, such as the terrorist groups engaged in the Global Jihad.

Jordan’s findings have been the subject of controversy and scholars have come forward with additional empirical studies to counter the claim that the removal of a terrorist organization’s leadership is ineffective.  In 2012, two new empirical studies of leadership decapitation were released that reached the opposite conclusion of Jordan.  Patrick B. Johnston’s “Does Decapitation Work? Assessing the Effectiveness of Leadership Targeting in Counterinsurgency Campaigns”, examined 118 attempts to decapitate the leaders of insurgent groups over a 30-year period.  The study found that leadership decapitation contributed to government victory in counterinsurgency campaigns and reduced the intensity and frequency of militant attacks.

Bryan C. Price’s “Targeting Top Terrorists: How Leadership Decapitation Contributes to Counter-Terrorism” examined 207 terrorist groups targeted by leadership decapitation campaigns over a 30-year period.  Price’s study agreed with Jordan that the effectiveness of leadership decapitation is reduced the longer a terrorist group is in existence.  However, in stark contrast, it found that leadership decapitation was an effective method for destroying terrorist groups.  Price argued this was especially true for terrorist groups driven by religious motivations, such as those that engage in the Global Jihad.

Caucasus Emirate

In 2007, Dokku Umarov or Abu Usman announced the formation of the Caucasus Emirate, an Islamic state governed by the laws of Shari’a that spans the provinces of Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetiya, Kabardino-Balkariya, Karachaevo-Cherkessiya, and North Ossetia in the North Caucasus.  Umarov was a veteran of the 1994 and 1999 Chechen war for independence and was the President of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, the Chechen secessionist movement’s government.  However, he abandoned Chechnya’s battle for independence from Russia in favor of jihad and the establishment of an Islamic state in the North Caucasus.

The Caucasus Emirate is an umbrella organization for Islamic militants operating in the North Caucasus.  It is simultaneously decentralized with self-sufficient militant groups, or jamaats, capable of launching attacks independently and centralized with Umarov in control of appointing militant leaders in the provinces who swear an oath of loyalty, or bay’ah, to him.  The Caucasus Emirate is aligned with the Global Jihad and cooperates closely with Islamic militants internationally.  Caucasus Emirate fighters have appeared in battles in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria and foreign jihadists have augmented Caucasus Emirate’s forces in their jihad against Russia.

The true size and strength of the Caucasus Emirate has been difficult for security and intelligence services to estimate.  In 2010, Umarov announced the Caucasus Emirate had 10,000-30,000 insurgents engaged in jihad against Russia.  Russia’s security services estimates of CE’s force strength for the same year was 400-1,500.  In 2004, CE’s combined insurgent and auxiliary forces were estimated to be 15,000. (4) In addition to the steady stream of bombings, gunfights and targeted assassinations in the North Caucasus, the CE has claimed credit for the 2007 and 2009 bombing of the Nevsky express train between Moscow and St. Petersburg, the 2010 bombing of the Moscow Metro, the 2011 attack on a Moscow airport and the 2014 attacks on a train station and trolleybus in Volgograd.  As early as 2010, reports surfaced that CE militants were plotting to attack the Sochi Olympics.

Russia’s Anti-Terror Campaign

Since the creation of the Caucasus Emirate, Russia’s primary anti-terrorism force, the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB), has launched numerous anti-terror operations built on leadership decapitation.  These operations have increased in number and intensity in the years leading up to the 2014 Olympics.

In Dagestan, the Shariat Jamaat remains one of the most active groups within the Caucasus Emirates despite the long list of leaders decapitated by the FSB.  In 2008, after less than a year as the commander of the Dagestani Front, Emir Abdul Majid was killed.  His replacement, Omar Sheikhulayev, or Emir Muaz, was killed in 2009.  His replacement, Umalat Magomedov, or Emir Al-Bara, was also killed in 2009—a mere seven months after his appointment as leader of Dagestan forces.

In 2010, less than a month after Umarov announced Magomed Vagabov, or Emir Seyfullah, as leader of the Dagestani Front, he was killed by the FSB.  Israpil Velijanov, or Emir Khasan or Hasan, was appointed his successor a short time later.  He was killed in 2011.  Control of the Shariat Jamaat was then transferred to Ibragimkhalil Daudov, or Emir Salikh, until his death at the hands of the FSB in 2012.  Rustam Asildarov, or Emir Abu Muhammad, is the current leader of Caucasus Emirate’s Dagestani forces.

Despite the rapid removal of the leaders of the Shariat Jamaat, it remains a deadly force in Dagestan responsible for a daily onslaught of violence.  While Shariat Jamaat denies any connection to the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, responsible for the attack, lived in the capital of Dagestan for six months in 2012. The group is believed to be responsible for carrying out the Volgograd bombings in January.

The Yarmuk Jamaat is the CE’s primary military front in the Kabardino-Balkariya, Karachaevo-Cherkessiya provinces, located a few hours away from Sochi.  In 2011, a dramatic increase in militant violence prompted a large-scale counter-terror operation on April 29 that killed 16 Yarmuk Jamaat militants including its leader Asker Dzhappuev.

Dzhappuev had assumed command of Yarmuk Jamaat after the death of Anzor Astemirov, or Emir Sayfullah, in 2010.  Astemirov was intimately involved in the creation of the Caucasus Emirate and, in addition to commanding the Yarmuk Jamaat, led the CE’s Shari’a court system.  With the 2011 raid, the FSB announced that they had effectively dismantled the Yarmuk Jamaat.  However, Alim Zankishiev, or Emir Ubaidallah, emerged later that year to lead the Yarmuk Jamaat in several small-scale attacks.

In 2012, Zankishiev was killed in another round of leadership decapitation.  His successor Ruslan Baryrbekov, or Emir Khamza or Khamzat, was killed a few months later.  Khasanbi Fakov, or Emir Abu Khasan, was the last known commander of the Yarmuk Jamaat and led the militant group to an upsurge in violence until his death in an FSB operation in August 2013.

Despite the success of FSB operations in decapitating the Yarmuk Jamaat’s leadership, it remains an active security threat and one of the primary sources behind the Sochi terror alerts.  In January, Russia security services reported six suspicious deaths that resulted from experimentation with explosives in the province sandwiched between Kabardino-Balkaria and Sochi.  It is speculated that those dead were Yarmuk Jamaat militants.


The 2014 Sochi Olympics will be the first time Russia has hosted the games since the fall of the Soviet Union and Vladimir Putin has spared no expense in its preparation.  In addition to the large-scale counter-terror operations the FSB has conducted in the North Caucasus, Putin has passed repressive counter-terror laws and instituted a “ring of steel” surrounding Sochi where an estimated 100,000 FSB officers will be stationed for the events.

The FSB has conducted a successful leadership decapitation campaign against the Caucasus Emirate and killed many of the organizations top militants.  It is rumored that the founder of the group, Dokka Umarov, was killed in January, although the FSB has been unable to confirm these reports.  Despite the success of the leadership decapitation effort, security experts continue to affirm that a terrorist attack during the Sochi Olympics is likely.  Rumors of a plotted chemical attack at Sochi are contributing to the hysteria surrounding the games.

The events that transpire at Sochi will be symbolic for both the Putin administration and the Caucasus Emirate.  Umarov has called on militants to do everything in their power to disrupt the games.  Failure to carry out an attack will be indicative of an organization weakened to the point of collapse and lend credence to scholars and security experts who maintain leadership decapitation is an effective counter-terror strategy.  A successful terrorist attack during the Sochi games, on the other hand, will continue to support the conclusion that leadership decapitation is counter-productive and the national security community is in dire need of a new counter-terror strategy.


2 thoughts on “The Effectiveness of Leadership Decapitation: A Caucasus Emirate Case Study

  1. Pingback: A Beginner’s Guide to the Controversial Sochi Olympics | SHADOW OF SOCHI

  2. Pingback: Counterterrorism Operations In Sochi’s Shadow | SHADOW OF SOCHI

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2 thoughts on “The Effectiveness of Leadership Decapitation: A Caucasus Emirate Case Study

  1. Pingback: A Beginner’s Guide to the Controversial Sochi Olympics | SHADOW OF SOCHI

  2. Pingback: Counterterrorism Operations In Sochi’s Shadow | SHADOW OF SOCHI

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