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New jihadist awakening in Russia

New jihadist awakening in Russia

Domestic consequences of the Russian war with ISIS


Dr. of the Political Science.

Prof. Higher School of Economics 
National Research University(Moscow)


According to several specialist studies, Russia is among the top-ten countries worldwide in which there is the highest number of terrorist attacks and is among the top-three in terms of the number of victims of terror (data as of 1990-2010)*. This list is headed by Iraq – 72,519 people were killed by terrorists there – followed by Pakistan (14,150) and Russia – 13,601 people. In Afghanistan, which occupies fourth place on the list, the number of casualties of terrorism is half that of Russia. Terrorist activities in Russia are most common in the North-Caucasus republics. The surrounding geographic area, comprising Russian regions bordering on the republics of the North Caucasus or located near this border – Stavropol Krai, Astrakhan Oblast and Volgograd Oblast as well as Moscow – is an area which is the next most-severely affected in terms of the number of deaths. In the 2000s, in all cases in which perpetrators of terrorist acts were explicitly identified, it transpired that they linked their activities with the slogans of jihad.

In my opinion, the development of jihadism in Russia and, primarily, in the North Caucasus, progressed through three stages:

In the first stage (the 1990s) the idea of ‘jihad’ remained in the shadow of ethnic nationalism and separatism – the major mobilization engine of terrorism in the North Caucasus, primarily among the Chechen militant groups. The first leaders of Chechen separatism – Dzhokhar Dudayev and Aslan Maskhadov (the latter in particular) – actively opposed the spread of Salafism-Islamism in Chechnya while emphasizing the national, rather than religious nature of the fight for the state independence of the Chechen republic. However, jihadism was gradually supplanting nationalism as the basis for rallying Chechen fighters and became prevalent under Doku Umarov who became the illegal underground President of the unrecognized Republic of Ichkeria on June 17, 2006. This marked the onset of a new stage in the development of Islamism in the North-Caucasus region.

The second stage of jihad is related to the fact that it became the ruling ideology of ‘the Caucasus Emirate’ (Imarat Kavkaz, the full name : ‘the Islamic State of the Caucasus Emirate’), a self-proclaimed ideological and territorial entity in the North Caucasus recognized as a terrorist organization in Russia and the USA. Doku Umarov announced its creation on October 7, 2007, proclaiming himself the ‘Emir’ (head) of Mujahideens of the Caucasus, ‘the jihadist leader’. At this stage Islamism in the region spread beyond the borders of Chechnya and began to rely on the network of organizational structures which spanned all of the republics in the North Caucasus. Admittedly, such internationalization initially caused a multitude of problems within the Chechen terrorist movement which dominated in the North Caucuses region in the 2000s. Thus, in 2010 several warlords of the Chechen sector of the Emirate renounced their oath to Umarov. However, gradually, the internationalism of jihad was becoming increasingly common. In part, this was related to the transfer of the area of activity from Chechnya to Dagestan which had topped the list of Russian regions with the largest number of terrorist attacks and the largest number of casualties since the early 2000s. Historically, Dagestan has been the center of Islam in the North Caucasus as well as the most religious republic in the region. In particular, this has helped strengthen the legitimacy of Islamism as the dominant ideology of terrorist groups in Dagestan.

After the liquidation of Umarov by Russian security services (January 2014), the Emirate was headed by the Dagestanis – Aliashkhab Kebekov (also known as Ali Abu Muhammad al Dagestani) and, following his extermination in April 2015, by Magomed Suleimanov (Abu Usman Gimrinsky). However, these substitutes have not made up for the loss of the most reputable Umarov, an equal to Shamil Basayev among terrorists in terms of military accolades. When it came to the art of conspiracy, Umarov was perhaps unrivalled. The first head of the Caucasus Emirate reigned in the underground for seven years, while his successor survived in this role for a little over a year. Anyway, the Emirate, which has experienced a decline since 2012, has started to rapidly wither and lose its reputation among militants following the death of its founder. It has been losing its role as the only umbrella structure for terrorist groups in the region incrementally. It has been supplanted by a different organization – far more dangerous than the structure created by Umarov.

The third stage in the development of the North-Caucasus jihadism is related to the fact that not only ideologically, but also organizationally, it has become a constituent part of the international, global terrorist movement. In June 2015, militants who are a part of the structural units of the Caucasus Emirate (vilayats of Dagestan, Nokhchiyo (Chechnya otherwise known as Ichkeria), Galgaycho (Ingushetia), the united vilayats of Kabardia, Balkaria and Karachai) swore allegiance to the leader of Islamic State Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

This process began earlier: Different detachments of North-Caucasus jihadism began to claim allegiance to Islamic State as early as in late 2014. The leader of the Dagestan sector Abu Muhammad Kadarsky was one of the first to claim allegiance on December 19. He was followed by the militant leaders of Kabardino-Balkaria and then Ingushetia who made similar statements. Finally, on June 12, 2015, the recording of the commander of the battalion of suicide bombers ‘Riyad us- Saliheen’ Emir Khamzat (Aslan Byutukayev) taking the oath on behalf of all the militants of Chechnya appeared on the Internet. In my opinion, this is not a coincident, not an episode, but a consistent transformation of the North-Caucasus terrorist underground for whom the global network of Islamic State is more appealing than the local home-made Emirate in many respects.

The reputation of Islamic State greatly exceeds that of the Caucasus Emirate in the milieu of world Islamism. The declared objective of IS – the creation of a world caliphate – has great psychological appeal as a great totalitarian utopia. Besides, it is more legitimate, clear and ambitious than the objectives of the Emirate. Military successes of IS, which is waging war on several fronts at once, attract stagnant North-Caucasus Mujahideens especially against the backdrop of the fading initiative of the Emirate. It is no wonder that several thousand (estimates vary from 2 to 5 thousand) Russian citizens have already fought in the ranks of IS. Combat troops of the Emirate always used to act in a relatively autonomous way and cherished this autonomy. It is clear that their subordination to the overseas supreme Emirate gives chieftains more freedom than subordination to the local leadership of the Caucasus Emirate and also alleviates the problem of inter-ethnic tensions which grew in the Emirate. National pride has severely hampered the Chechens from obeying the Dagestan Emir, and the Dagestani – from obeying the Chechen one. The Arabs are a different story: no long-standing historical prejudices which have accumulated between the ethnic groups of the Northern Caucasus are aligned to them. On the contrary, the Arabs have always enjoyed great respect as ‘they who brought Islam to the Caucasus’. And the experience of the Chechen war has confirmed this. Emir Khattab, the most notorious Arab warlord in the Chechen intifada was considered a hero; ‘the Islamic Che Guevara’ among jihadists from the mid-1990s until his death in 2002.

What threat is posed to Russia by the inclusion of the North-Caucasus terrorist underground in the network structure of Islamic State?

On September 30, 2015, the Russian Federation entered the war in the Middle East and announced the bombardment of positions of the terrorist organization ‘Islamic State’. It is true that, almost immediately, reports stating that it was not terrorists of IS that were targeted in the attacks, but forces of the Syrian opposition antagonistic towards President Bashar al-Assad appeared in Western media. Assessment of the reliability of this information is beyond the scope of this article. Still, war against Islamic State has been declared by Russia. And now, leaders of military alignments, having sworn allegiance to IS, have to perform their sacred vow – most likely, through increasing their terrorist activity in Russia.

In my opinion, this may revive terrorist activity in the region and outweigh those factors which inhibited the activity of terrorists. As is HYPERLINK ""well known, it diminished between 2012 and 2015 compared to previous years. However, the decline was due to short-lived, transitory circumstances. Please find some of which detailed below:

1. Unprecedented clearing up of terrorist areas in the region initiated in the run-up to the Sochi Olympics-2014 and continued in subsequent years succeeded not only in liquidating the top figures of the Emirate but also key figures among the warlords. However, military operations of the federal forces have other consequences, too. For example, they serve to breed new avengers among the local North-Caucasus population. So far, untrained, young militants have been unable to replace experienced commanders killed in action, however, in time they will. Besides, the potential of a military solution to a problem of jihadism is limited in other respects, too. The Federal Armed Forces do not have unlimited resources especially now, when they are needed not only in the North Caucasus but also in not-so-distant regions in southern Russia bordering on Ukraine and in the Donbas and recently in Syria.

2. The outflow of thousands of young radicals to the war in Syria reduced the activity of militants in the North Caucasus. However, some of these Mujahideens will undoubtedly return home bringing with them not only combat experience which the local recruits lack, but also experience of unprecedented cruelty gained in the IS ranks. In the case of military defeats of Islamic State, the number of returnees from their ranks shall be significant. Moreover, it is quite likely that in this case, the North Caucasus will also become a transit zone for other jihadist militants since the paths have been laid and networks throughout the region are well-established. And that is why it will be extremely difficult to close this transit route.

3. Temporary decline of the activity of North-Caucasus terrorists was associated with the erosion of the very structure of the Caucasus Emirate, weakening of the leadership and target orientations of combat operations. Their transfer under the auspices of IS will probably strengthen ideological and organizational fundamentals of North-Caucasus jihad. IS leaders already support Caucasus terrorists through propaganda. Back in 2014, a video-address by Islamic State contained threats against President Putin (he was threatened with an overthrow, ‘falling off the throne’) was disseminated over the Internet, including a promise to participate in the ‘liberation of Chechnya and the entire Caucasus’. This promise is now starting to be fulfilled as IS has started to operate in Russia via detachments of North-Caucasus terrorists who swore allegiance to it.

The growing economic crisis in Russia is the greatest threat to stability in the region. And it is also the most important and perhaps long-term factor affecting the revival of Islamism here. The crisis breeds social discontent which most often transforms quickly into Islamist slogans in the North Caucasus. This region is dependent on budget subsidies more than other regions  in Russia and hence, it suffers under the current reductions more so than others. Here, authorities cannot enjoy the psychological cushion that protects them in most regions of Russia as a result of mass popular gratitude for the accession of Crimea. Islamists are not happy about the return of Russian Sevastopol - they are more attuned to dissatisfaction of Crimean Tatars; the North-Caucasus businessmen and officials are not overly happy about the appearance of the new subject of the Federation: they know that, earlier, the North Caucasus had been the first in line for subsidies from the federal budget and now has to make way for Crimea.

As regards the potential and scale of armed Islamism, Russia is second only to the Middle East. Moreover, as I have tried to demonstrate, factors which stimulate the activity of this force, hostile to social development, are maintained and sometimes amplified in our country.

*In the latest Global Terrorism Index , Russian ranked 11th

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