Dagestan’s bitter war,fought by ‘many Tsarnaevs’

Visit to Dagestan by Tamerlan Tsarnaev,a Boston bombing suspect,has drawn attention to conflict in North Caucasus

Written by New York Times | Khasavyurt | Published:May 21, 2013 12:40 am

The slender man of 22,a former guerrilla fighter,was making another hangdog,penitent appearance at the behest of city officials here. It was brainwashing that led him to take up arms against the state and “go to the forest”,he said,and his sincere desire was to forget that it had ever happened.

Most of the time,people like this young man,Dzhabrail Altysultanov,do not come back alive,the deputy mayor of Khasavyurt,a city near the Chechen border,acknowledged matter-of-factly. If Altysultanov had not surrendered,the official said,“they would have had to gather him up in pieces”.

The six-month sojourn of the suspect in Boston bombing,Tamerlan Tsarnaev,in the Russian territory of Dagestan last year has drawn unusual attention to the low-boil guerrilla warfare of the North Caucasus. A picture has come together of Tsarnaev as an outsider feeling his way around the edges of an insurgency that looked very different from the stories of partisan fighting that he had heard growing up among Chechen refugees.

Investigators are pushing to better understand what Tsarnaev was looking for when he travelled here. What he found was a shadow war that takes place around the edges of normal life,hidden in plain sight.

Young men vanish from their homes,only to reappear in tallies of the dead after scorching counter-terrorism operations. Though the number of fighters is probably no higher than a few hundred,law enforcement officials say,it is backed by a sprawling and invisible support network – thousands of ordinary people,even police officers,who assist them,out of fear or sympathy. It is a society engaged in an intimate tug-of-war over young men who slip easily into the ranks of the insurgency.

“You want to talk about Tsarnaevs,” said the mayor,a barrel-chested strongman named Saigidpasha Umakha-nov. “Do you know how many Tsarnaevs we have?”

The guerrillas recruit athletes,and five of his star pupils have risen to become insurgent commanders,or “emirs”. One of his deputies was forced to resign last year after his son was accused of aiding an armed group. The fighters visit Khasavyurt to hunt down city police officers — 36 have been killed since 2009 — or slip flash drives with videotaped messages into the mailboxes of officials or businessmen,asking for money,lest “God punish you with our hands.” The state answers with its own thunder.

In Dagestan,with a population of nearly 2.9 million,about 350 people were killed in fighting here in 2012,of which two-thirds were militants and one-third police officers,according to the news service Caucasian Knot. The message from the authorities is clear: Once a young man has taken part in an attack,he is unlikely to live long. “They cannot return — there is no road back,” Umakhanov said.

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