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Olympics give Chechen terrorist a sounding board

Screen shot of a video of Doku Umarov.

He calls himself the "emir" of the North Caucasus. For the past six months, he has been urging followers to cause carnage at the "satanic" Olympic Games.

Doku Umarov, a 49-year-old Chechen, is among the world's most wanted terrorists. This week, Russian officials blamed him for inciting two suicide bombings in Volgograd. As violence in Russian cities spikes ahead of the Winter Games, the fugitive terrorist leader and his Imarat Kavkaz – or Caucasus Emirate group – are garnering global attention.

Security experts say that the Caucasus Emirate, which the Canadian government formally blacklisted as a terrorist group on Monday, is a potent threat. Yet given the tight security cordon that is descending on Sochi, the brunt of the danger may be borne less by the Olympic athletes than by Russian civilians far from the resort town.

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Volgograd, where the alleged suicide bombings on Sunday and Monday killed more than 30 people, is hundreds of kilometres away. Russia's Foreign Ministry has pointed out in a statement that the bombings occurred against a backdrop of "provocative appeals by bandit underground leaders such as Doku Umarov, to rally around the flag of jihad."

Mr. Umarov, who studied engineering as a student, had been a field commander during the Chechen uprisings against Russia that started in the 1990s. Experts say he became a terrorist leader through attrition and that what's most remarkable about him is that he hasn't been assassinated yet.

"He basically rose steadily into dead men's shoes. One thing he has been very good at is avoiding getting killed. That may be his greatest attribute," said Mark Galeotti, a professor specializing in Russian security matters at New York University.

Now in hiding, Mr. Umarov appears to have little ability to directly command anyone beyond some 100 fugitive fighters around him. Even so, he uses online videos to gain a global audience and motivate far-flung fundamentalists to commit acts of violence.

"Sochi has given him a global mouthpiece he wouldn't have otherwise had," said Prof. Galeotti, who publishes the blog In Moscow's Shadows.

The Caucasus Emirate group, an umbrella term for various guerrilla factions, is held responsible for attacks leading to hundreds of deaths, including the 2002 theatre siege in Moscow and the 2004 school siege in Beslan.

Since 2009, it has been behind several bombings in Moscow and Volgograd, attacks in which Mr. Umarov is alleged to be directly implicated.

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Not only Russia is seeking him: Since 2010, the U.S. government has been offering a $5-million (U.S.) bounty for his capture as a "specially designated global terrorist." On Monday, Canadian Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney announced the Caucasus Emirate group would be outlawed in the Criminal Code.

Last week, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov – who has called Mr. Umarov "Satan" and vowed to "eliminate" him before the Olympics – announced he had been killed, but no one appears to put much stock in this.

Mr. Umarov continues to be featured in periodical Internet propaganda videos, where he is surrounded by birdsong, forests and the black banner of militant Islam.

Russia "plans to hold the Olympics on the bones of our ancestors, on the bones of many, many dead Muslims, buried on the territory of our land on the Black Sea," Mr. Umarov said in a video released in July. "We, as mujahideen [holy warriors], are obliged to not permit that, using any methods allowed us."

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About the Author
National security reporter

Focusing on Canadian matters during the past decade, Colin Freeze has reported extensively on the interplay between government, police, spy services, and the judiciary. Colin has twice been to Afghanistan to be embedded with the Canadian military. More

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