Kadyrov’s Hunt for an ISIS Sleeper Cell

Detailing a special operation in Chechnya’s Kurchaloy district

On January 11 2017, Russian media outlets published reports detailing a large special operation against an ‘illegal armed group’ in Kurchaloy district, Chechnya. The operation began on January 10, when Kadyrov announced the first round of detentions in Tsotsi-Yurt on Instagram.

Sources of Novaya Gazeta claim that law enforcement agencies were tipped off about an imminent attack on one of the Chechen Interior Ministry’s units several days previously. Other sources say the targets in the armed group were prominent representatives of the Muslim clergy as well as Chechen officials and officers.

Оn January 13, Kommersant ran an article saying that Chechen law enforcement agencies were able to establish the location of the militants using their correspondence on a secret Whatsapp group; meaning the authorities either infiltrated the group or cracked Whatsapp’s message encryption, which is unlikely. Shortly after the operation, Whatsapp users in the region received messages with tips to delete any sent/received messages about religion or any other topics that law enforcement agencies might consider ‘suspicious’. It is unclear if the messages were sent by state authorities or individuals looking out for each other. According to Kommersant, the warnings were not unfounded as police were observed stopping and searching young men, their cars, and the content on their phones.

Another explanation of how the Chechen law enforcement discovered the militant group was floated by Kavkazr.com. The publication suggests that the group was turned in by its own members, who were captured during the attacks on police in Grozny in December.

On January 11, Kavkazr.com reported that 35 young men were arrested in Geldagan alone. Similar detentions occurred in the villages of Bachiyurt, Tsotsin-Yurt, Kurchaloy and Mayrtup. It appears that a few of those detained were released shortly thereafter.

The operation lasted three days, January 10 to 12, and was overseen personally by Kadyrov. Thus far, it is unclear how many people were arrested during the operation. Novaya Gazeta released a list of 22 detainees on January 12 with the source of the document quoted as the Ministry of Interior Affairs.

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On January 16, an anonymous source from the power structures in the North Caucasus Federal District told Interfax that the total number of those detained has risen to 60. According to the RFERL’s Caucasus service, the number of detainees currently stands at around 100. He also added that the large-scale operation was carried out not only in Kurchaloy district, but also in several localities of the Shali district, as well as Grozny.

During the night of January 11 and early morning of the 12th, 4 suspects were killed in a shootout with police near a gas station “Orion” in the outskirts of Geldagan village. This was confirmed by comparing the footage of the interview Kadyrov gave after the shootout and several images posted and geotagged by a Geldagan citizen on Vkontakte, which clearly show a gas station which matches the description of the gas station in front of which Kadyrov gave an interview.

The alleged terrorist cell was based in Tsotsi-Yurt, a village Kurchaloy district, but the militants were captured and killed in a neighboring village of Geldagan, where Kadyrov was interviewed by the media next to the dead bodies. Kadyrov noted that the group was particularly dangerous because some of its members were related to an alleged Chechen rebel commander Isa Muskiev, who was killed in 2006.

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The head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs Ruslan Alxanov named those killed as:

· Umar Ozliev (1992)
· Raibek Idrisov (1988)
· Alixan Kupchiev (1984)
· Uzum-Xadzhi Madaev (1980), he was previously known to the police. In 2004 he received a 12 and a half year long prison sentence for several crimes, including an attempted murder, attempt on the life of a law enforcement officer, and illegal possession of weapons. It was also identified that he is a distant relative of Isa.

Additional imagery from the scene published by sokrytoe.org suggests that the bodies of the four killed militants were undressed to humiliate them.

WARNING SENSITIVE IMAGE

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Lenta.ru reported that the shootout began when the militants opened fire in response to law enforcement agencies’ request to surrender. A law enforcement agency representative quoted by Lenta.ru said that the militants used machine guns. The weapons laid out next to the bodies of deceased suspects in grozny.tv footage confirm that.

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Two law enforcement officers were killed in the fighting too, said the source interviewed by RIA Novosti. Rosgvardiya named the two officers as Khamzat Hashum and Bekhan Huth.

During an improvised press conference at the scene of the shooting, Kadyrov said that one militant escaped, but the operation would continue in the morning to capture him. On January 14, Chechnya’s leader announced that the runaway, who was previously identified as Imran Datsayev, was detained in Grozny after hurling a hand grenade at the police as they sought to apprehend him.

In an interview, Kadyrov said that the law enforcement officers confiscated mines, explosives, ammunition, and weapons. During the same interview, Kadyrov is seen displaying an ISIS flag, allegedly retrieved from the suspected terrorists. Separately, Kadyrov confirmed that he had “no doubt” that the group was acting “under the orders of ISIS in Syria: “We have irrefutable evidence of that: phone calls, messages containing instructions, and orders. Our operatives have it all”.

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On January 12, a source from the law enforcement of the North Caucasus Federal District (SKFO) said that Chechen security forces dismantled the entire ISIS network in the region, including the accomplices. Kadyrov has also shared the news on his Vkontakte page:

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Dear friends! 
 Today, in Kurchaloy district of Chechnya 4 dangerous criminals ended their careers. They were a part of a terrorist organization. Some time ago, we received information that a close relative of Isa Muskiev, a terrorist leader killed in 2006, received instructions from abroad to activate a network of criminals. A carefully prepared operation revealed a whole criminal network — its leaders, supporters and ammunition depots. The arrests were made quickly, at an assigned hour. Dozens of militants and their associates were arrested. On Wednesday evening, during a special operation, four militants were killed. One of the group members was taken alive. One militant managed to escape, taking advantage of the darkness, thick fog and rainy weather. Law enforcement officers have completely surrounded the area. At dawn the participants of the operation will continue. I am sure that the militant will be detained or neutralized. Unfortunately, during the raid heroically killed one of our comrades. None of the local residents suffered any damage. The population actively supports the participants in the operation. The situation in the area is calm. #Kadyrov #Kadyrov #Russia #Chechnya

On January 13, Kavkazcenter published an article quoting Kadyrov as saying that during the special operation 10 local residents from Kurchaloy district were killed, but this could not be separately confirmed.


Kadyrov’s guard

Days after the special operation has ended, Kavkazr.com published a news story alleging that Kadyrov’s body guard — Alikhan Muzaev — was arrested on suspicions of a member of an anti-government militia. He was captured on January 15 and, according to Chechnya officials, killed himself during the arrest. His family said they did not believe this was true.

A tweet was quoted in the story

WARNING: disturbing imagery

“In the Kurchaloy district, an MVD (Ministry of Internal Affairs) employee killed himself during his arrest when he took the gun from one of the police officers”

Looking at the picture shared on Twitter, it is hard to confirm Musaev killed himself. There are no visible gunshot wounds in his head, his face is bloody, which might indicate signs of a fight.

Kadyrov responded to these reports in an interview to TASS. He confirmed the death of Alikhan Musaev and his connections to the underground anti-government militia, but denied he was a part of his personal protection detail: “it is an absolute lie” Kadyrov told TASS. The head of Chechnya also added that Musaev was not detained, merely offered to go to the police station, but then he got hold of a policemen’s gun and killed himself.


Eye-witness reports

Eye-witnesses interviewed by Kazkazr.com said they were feeling scared because of the large amount of military equipment deployed to the two villages.

(Source)

Local residents reported that the police raided several houses without warning, checking garages, basements, and gardens.

Kavkazr.com also learnt that the operation was conducted by forces within the Rossgvardya — OMON, SOBR, private security, the police, and others.

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Another eye-witness video has been circulating online, possibly showing the arrival of the military equipment to the Kurchaloy district. The video has not been geolocated.

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This image can be geolocated to Tstotsi Yurt. In the right corner of the screenshot, three letters “Sup” are a part of a “Super” sign оf the “Gas Station Super”, which can be found in Google Maps.

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End of the operation

Kadyrov announced the end of the operation on the evening of January 12 in a video posted on Instagram:

“Dear friends! This evening we have neutralized a very dangerous militant group, which planned a series of terrorist attacks. I am grateful to the participants of the special operation. They showed courage and heroism. Risking their own lives to prevent human casualties. Our soldiers have once again proved that they are able to respond adequately to any threats, and protect people and the state. We will not allow anyone to undermine peace and stability in the country. The events of recent days have shown the need to strengthen the fight against the ideology of extremism and terrorism. Youth cannot be misled and used as cannon fodder. We need to tightly pull the plug on [extremist] recruiters. Even one person who chooses the path of evil, is a serious threat and a tragedy. I have discussed these issues today at a meeting with the heads of cities and districts, the commanders of the Chechen Interior Ministry units and the FSVNG’s regional office the Russian Federation and the representatives of the clergy. I stressed the need to firmly and quickly block any channels that spread extremist ideology. And the guilty should be punished to the fullest extent of the law. I drew attention that the district heads and police chiefs are responsible for each person, who was deceived and recruited into the ranks of the militant groups. Also during the meeting, I presented the new heads of the Kurchaloy, Gudermes, Shelkovskogo and Nozhai-Yurt districts — Ali Abdullaev, Usman Ozdamirova, Vahit Geremeeva, Aslanbek Muzurueva. I wished them good luck and success. #Kadyrov #Russia #Chechnya #terrorism”

The post confirms that over the course of the special operation Kadyrov dismissed and replaced four district heads, namely those in Kurchaloevsk, Gudermersk, Shelovsk and Nozhay-Yutr. It is unclear if these replacements are in any way related to the special operation.


Donara Barojan is a Digital Forensic Research Associate in the @DFRLab’s Digital Research Unit Baltics.

Follow the Digital Forensic Research Lab online @DFRLab.

For more in-depth analysis from our regional experts follow the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center.

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