Moscow, Russia - In a lengthy diatribe posted on YouTube in late December, a full-bearded man in a loose white robe recites Quranic quotes before unleashing on an unseen opponent for growing a "plastic brain" and succumbing to "Satan's tricks".

The man is Ali Abu Muhammad, the fugitive head of the Caucasus Emirate, an underground jihadist network that has been fighting for years to turn Russia's North Caucasus region into an independent state with Islamic law. Russian authorities outlawed the emirate as a terrorist group and Abu Muhammad, whose real name is Aliaskhab Kebekov, tops the federal list of the most-wanted criminals.

Kebekov's tirade is aimed at his namesake, who goes by the nom de guerre of Abu Muhammad and considers himself the "emir" or ruler of Dagestan - the epicentre of an Islamist insurgency in Russia's most ethnically diverse region, where hundreds of Islamist fighters, law enforcement officers, and civilians are killed every year.

A week earlier, Abu Muhammad declared that his small legion of bearded, camouflaged guerrillas had unilaterally left the Caucasus Emirate. Instead, they pledged allegiance to ISIL, or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which now enlists hundreds of Caucasus natives and whose leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, proclaimed himself the new caliph.

"You betrayed your brothers at a time when they needed unity and help the most," Kebekov says in accented Russian sitting in front of the emirate's black flag decorated with a Quranic phrase and the depiction of a sword. "You became the reason of a split between mujahideen. If you, brother, want to wage jihad with Baghdadi, go to him and leave us alone."

Special forces search for suspects in Makhachkala, the capital of Russia's North Caucasus Republic of Dagestan [Reuters]

A growing schism

In the past two months, three emirate-affiliated warlords appeared in videos declaring fealty to ISIL and al-Baghdadi.

One of them was Abu Ibrahim, the "emir" of a Dagestan district that borders Chechnya, the cradle of anti-Russian secular separatism that has long metastasised into a region-wide jihadist insurgency.

"I will submit to [al-Baghdadi] in what we like or don't like, I'll be loyal to him until the end," Abu Ibrahim said in a YouTube video as he stood in a forest clearing in front of the emirate's flag, surrounded by gun-toting men in camouflage. "We call on you, brothers, to give a bayat [pledge of allegiance] to our caliph. This is a great mercy of Allah and this is an obvious truth."

The pledges of Caucasus fighters do not necessarily mean they have to travel to Syria or Iraq. They can stay where they are - in the snowed-in, forested mountains and desolate hideaways - or in their city apartments and village houses, because many of the emirate's members and sympathisers are weekend jihadists with day jobs, secular clothes, and families, analysts and security officials say.

But their declarations seem to be the largest split between Russian militants in recent years that will undoubtedly affect Moscow's efforts to combat terrorism in the Caucasus and mainland Russia, analysts say.

"It is hard to talk about the emirate's unity now," political analyst Alexey Malashenko of Moscow's Carnegie Centre told Al Jazeera. "I think that an excessively extremist wing will emerge in the North Caucasus from the crowd that copycats ISIL."

The split seems imminent because it divides older guerrillas who took up arms against Moscow in the 1990s from a "third generation" of fighters who are now in their late teens and early 20s, Malashenko said.

"I don't know whether they will ever find common ground" with the emirate, he says.

Deaths, claims and failures

The emirate is a mutant reincarnation of the secular, nationalist separatism in Chechnya, where tens of thousands died and hundreds of thousands were displaced after two wars with Moscow.

It was proclaimed in 2007 by the top Chechen separatist, Doku Umarov, who said his new goal was to "liberate" the Caucasus and other Russian provinces with sizable Muslim populations from the "infidel" rule of Moscow.

"The [Caucasus Emirate] is a full-blown jihadi terrorist network allied with the global jihadi revolutionary movement, having very little, if anything, to do with Chechen or any other kind of nationalist separatism," writes Gordon M Hahn, the California-based author of "The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia's North Caucasus and Beyond," which was published in October.

Since then, the emirate has claimed responsibility for a string of attacks in Moscow and Russia's largest cities that killed hundreds and sent shockwaves across the country.

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One of the attacks was carried out by two female suicide bombers who blew themselves up on the Moscow metro in 2010, killing 41 and wounding 88. Another bombing at a Moscow airport killed 37 and left some 180 wounded in 2011.

Some of their claims, however, seemed far-fetched or outright ridiculous.

In 2009, Umarov said the emirate blew up a gigantic Siberian hydropower plant that killed 75. However, no traces of explosives were found, and the disaster was attributed to poor maintenance and metal fatigue.

A year later, Umarov claimed responsibility for massive peat-bog fires around Moscow that shrouded the Russian capital in poisonous smog for weeks. The fires, however, are a recurring phenomenon caused by unprecedented heat waves - and Soviet-era efforts to dry huge swamps outside the city.

The emirate also targeted shop owners who sell alcohol, corrupt officials, law enforcement officers, federal troops and Muslim clerics who denounced the ideology of Salafism or followed the traditions of Sufi brotherhoods that have been influential in the region, even in the Soviet era.

An ethnic Russian woman who converted to Islam blew herself up in 2012, killing Said Afandi al-Chirkavi, a white-bearded, 74-year-old Sufi leader from Dagestan who had tens of thousands of followers. Kebekov, who was the emirate's top qadi, or Islamic judge, is believed to have ordered the attack.

Despite the highly publicised attacks, real or imaginary, the emirate never gained control of a single town or city and remains a loose conglomerate of small cells scattered throughout the Caucasus. Their members are mostly on their own in planning attacks - or resisting federal forces and local police.

The emirate also failed to unite fighters in this region of dizzying ethnic diversity. Dagestan alone is home to at least 100 ethnic groups, while five other Caucasus provinces host more ethnicities divided by centuries-old feuds over land, pastures and power.

Anonymous graves of fighters suspected of participating in attacks. Tombstones are marked: 'Unknown man' and 'Unknown woman' and a burial date [AP]

Softer policies

Kebekov became the emirate's leader in March after Umarov died of food poisoning - having survived at least five official reports about his death.

The 43-year-old Muslim scholar does not have the authority of an experienced warlord and his reputation appears tarnished - rivals ridicule him for having been prosecuted and fined for selling homemade moonshine in 1994.

And Kebekov has been critical of ISIL and has rebuked Caucasus fighters who joined it. He advised those who were adamant about going to Syria not to join ISIL. He also criticised Abu Omar al-Shishani, an ethnic Chechen who became one of the most dreaded ISIL warlords who threatened to bring jihad to Russia.

One of the Caucasus fighters who joined ISIL responded to Kebekov's criticism by saying: "Let him sit there in the Caucasus and eat leaves, and we'll be doing a five-star jihad."

Meanwhile, Kebekov sought to win the hearts and minds of the civilian population back home. In June, he announced the emirate's fighters should refrain from killing civilians and using suicide bombers, especially women, and focus on killing federal troops, police, and corrupt officials instead.

These policies contradict ISIL's notorious cruelty towards their enemies and their fighters who disobey their superiors' orders.

Dwindling numbers

It is difficult to estimate the number of the emirate's members because Russian officials come up with various figures. Security officials prefer triple digits when they request more funds for their operations, while local leaders stick to lower figures to emphasise their efforts in eradicating the insurgency.

Chechnya's Kremlin-backed strongman Ramzan Kadyrov claims the emirate enlists hundreds of fighters - a minuscule number compared to the tens of thousands of Chechen separatists who fought Moscow in the 1990s and early 2000s.

And the emirate is suffering heavy losses. Almost 300 people died in the Caucasus in 2014 as a result of 26 attacks and some 130 shootouts with federal forces and police, according to Kavkazsky Uzel - "The Caucasus Knot" - a website that monitors developments in the region's seven provinces.

Some 200 of them were alleged Islamist fighters, it said.

Alleged because one can become a jihadist posthumously. Russian security officials often declare any victim of their raids an "armed member of an illegal militia" - even if they were innocent bystanders in the wrong place at the wrong time, rights groups and observers say.

"They list anyone they could because they needed to report their operations," Malashenko says. "These stats are lies because it's really difficult to determine who was a real militant and who was just a passerby or a simple sympathiser."

If there is an order from the supreme commander [President Vladimir Putin], servicemen will be capable of neutralising those threatening Russia from Syria in their own lair.

- Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya's leader

Rights groups have long criticised law enforcement officers for the excessive use of force combined with what they claim are extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detentions, trumped-up charges against suspected Islamists, and expulsion of their relatives from their homes.

This violence used to be the emirate's steady source of new recruits - young men wrongly accused of aiding fighters have no choice but to join them. But this source may run dry for Kebekov because of ISIL's growing popularity.

Official response

The future of ISIL loyalists in the Caucasus depends on Russia's domestic problems and the success of an international anti-ISIL coalition.

The ongoing economic crisis in Russia caused by the plummeting oil prices, the falling rouble and western economic sanctions will inevitably affect the Caucasus, one of Russia's poorest regions and a source of labour migrants who flock to central Russia, despite growing xenophobia and anti-Muslim sentiments.

The return of these migrants will further spark unrest and prompt more youngsters to join jihadist ranks.

Moscow is already cutting down lavish subsidies to the Caucasus provinces that have largely been embezzled by corrupt local leaders, according to independent media reports and leaked US diplomatic dispatches.

Meanwhile, the US-led coalition to halt ISIL's momentum in Syria and Iraq have not yielded any triumphs.

"If the coalition does not achieve decisive victories in the spring, for the Caucasus it will be what I call a demonstration effect - if they are so strong out there, we can be just as strong down here," Malashenko says.

Russian leaders understand the danger - and even vow to fight ISIL on its own turf.

"If there is an order from the supreme commander [President Vladimir Putin], servicemen will be capable of neutralising those threatening Russia from Syria in their own lair," Chechnya's Kadyrov said in December in a statement posted on his government's website.

However, given how Russia's ties with the West hit Cold War lows over the conflict in Ukraine, any participation of Russian forces in the anti-ISIL operations seems hardly possible.

Source: Al Jazeera