Evolution of the Terror Threat Facing Russia
On October 21, 2013 a female suicide bomber blew up a bus full of passengers in Volgograd. Six passengers died at the scene; another woman died later in hospital; 37 people were injured. The bomber herself was also killed. She hailed from Makhachkala, in the troubled southern province of Dagestan, and belonged to a Jihadist group called The Caucasus Emirate (Imarat Kavkaz). The group consists of militant Islamists in the Russian North Caucasus and their sympathizers in the rest of the country.
The police and security services’ response to the attack in Volgograd was swift. Detectives quickly established who the suicide bomber was, and which radical group she belonged to. On November 16, five members of that group were killed in a security operation in Makhachkala.1 On November 19 the authorities reported that the leader of the group, Murad Kasumov, had also been killed, along with a senior ally.2
The bus bombing on October 21 was the first successful terrorist attack in central Russia since January 24, 2011, when the Ingushetia branch of the Caucasus Emirate detonated a home-made device at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport. Moscow itself, however, remains the terrorists’ prime target. An attack terrorists planned to stage on Red Square on the night of January 1, 2011, failed only because the female suicide bomber proved to be poorly trained. In July 2011 the FSB [Federal Security Service] seized four terrorists preparing a plot to bomb the Moscow-St. Petersburg high-speed train. On May 20, 2013, the FSB killed three militants of the Islamic Party of Turkestan group during a security operation in Orekhovo-Zuyevo, Moscow Region. All three hailed from the Republic of Bashkortostan; they had been trained on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and were preparing an attack in Moscow. In the latest security operation last November, 16 members of the Takfir wal-Hijra radical movement were seized in Moscow.
The bus bombing in Volgograd has once again shifted the focus to the North Caucasus and the terrorists operating not far from Sochi, the site of the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics. The Russian government has given assurances that unprecedented security measures are being taken ahead of the Sochi Olympics, and that athletes and spectators will be safe from attack.
Ever since the International Olympic Committee chose Sochi in the summer of 2007, the decision has been criticized for security reasons. The city is situated close to the parts of the North Caucasus that have long been regarded as the home turf of jihadist militants. Doku Umarov, the leader of the Caucasus Emirate, has often railed against the Sochi Olympics and threatened to disrupt the Games.
The territories around Sochi also hold a lot of painful memories for ethnic Circassians; these memories date back to the Russian conquest of the Caucasus in the 19th century. There have been attempts by various Circassian groups in Russia and abroad to organize an international campaign of condemnation against Moscow. But as of late 2013, it appears that the Russian government has managed to deal successfully with this potentially very damaging political problem. Moscow also seriously weakened the jihadist underground movement in the West Caucasus in 2011-2012.
The jihadists are the only political force in Putin’s Russia that offer armed opposition to the existing political setup. As far as the Caucasian Wahhabists are concerned, the main drawback of the Russian political system is that the country is not ruled by Islamic law. All their other traditional grievances — such as the bloody history of the Russian conquest, suppression of ethnic freedoms, and corruption — are merely a corollary of that key problem.
The war waged by the Islamists in the Caucasus has continued non-stop on Putin’s watch. The transformation of Chechen ethnic separatism into a pan-ethnic jihadist movement began back in the mid-1990s. The second Russian campaign in Chechnya was triggered in August and September 1999 by two jihadist leaders, Shamil Basayev and Khattab (Thamir Al-Suwailem). During that campaign, the separatist component of the Chechen uprising was completely marginalized, and jihadists began to play the leading role. Back in 2002 the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, the virtual state proclaimed by the separatists, formally introduced Sharia law. After the death of its last president, Aslan Maskhadov, in March 2005, his successors (Abdul-Khakim Sadulayev in 2005-2006 and Doku Umarov since 2006) made the Chechen cause part of the greater Caucasus Emirate project. Proclaimed in 2007, the Caucasus Emirate is now the overarching framework that unites the jihadist underground movements all over Russia. It is to the head of the Caucasus Emirate that the leaders of the regional jihadist groups formally swear allegiance.
Meanwhile, Moscow’s military, security and police operations against jihadists have been fairly successful. The militants have sustained heavy losses over the past 15 years of counterinsurgency operations in the region. Khattab, the Saudi militant who trained a whole generation of bombers and field commanders at his Kavkaz training camp, was killed back in 2002. Shamil Basayev, the most experienced and talented leader of the jihadists, was eliminated in July 2006.
The loss of experienced field commanders has affected the nature and scale of the rebel attacks. They have not managed to pull off any successful large operations since the June 22, 2004 attack in Ingushetia. The last time they even attempted a major operation was in October 13, 2005, when they tried (and failed) to seize Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria. Since then they have abandoned all tactics that require complex preparations and coordinated actions by several groups with hundreds of fighters involved.
The jihadists now favor urban guerilla warfare, improvised explosive devices, and suicide bombings. They seldom operate in groups larger than 10 people these days. In the eight years since 2006 almost all the militants who were trained at the Kavkaz camp, and who had some experience of large combat operations, have either died or retired. Now that the Islamists do not directly control any territory in Russia, they cannot organize proper military training for their new commanders. The only kind of training they can still provide is for small hit-and-run operations.
Despite their military setbacks, the Caucasian militants have been fairly creative in resolving their funding problems. In 2004-2005 Moscow managed to pressure the Gulf monarchies to drastically reduce their financing of the jihad in the North Caucasus. In mid-2006 the rebel leaders blamed their lack of achievements on money problems: “Our Mujahedeen are now lacking only money,” Caucasus Front vice president Doku Umarov complained in April 2006. “We are capable of launching bigger operations but it all depends on our finances.” But then the jihadists identified a new source of financing: they began to extort money from local businessmen and officials. These officials, meanwhile, have money to spare thanks to endemic corruption and the generous funding the North Caucasus provinces receive from Moscow.
The jihadists have imposed a form of tax on senior civil servants and businessmen, saying that the money is due to them as the “legitimate Islamic authorities”. They have also been fairly successful in imposing Sharia law in various areas of day-to-day life. Many local shops have been intimidated into removing alcohol from their shelves. Several education officials who tried to impose a ban on the Islamic headscarf in school have been killed. Even fortune-tellers have been forced to close their shops because the practice is banned by Islam.
Inventive ways of channeling government money into jihad have freed the insurgents from their dependence on laborious and unreliable fundraising methods, and firmly established them as a force to be reckoned with. They are especially strong in Dagestan, where they had become a major feature of the local political landscape by early 2013. In other parts of the North Caucasus, however, their achievements have been much less spectacular. In Ingushetia they suffered a serious blow when the leader of the local underground movement, Ali Taziev (a.k.a. Amir Magas) was seized on June 9, 2010, and sentenced to life imprisonment in October 2013. In the West Caucasus, seven prominent commanders were killed in Kabardino-Balkaria in the spring of 2011.
In early 2013 the Russian Interior Ministry and the FSB stepped up their campaign against jihadists in the North Caucasus as part of preparations for the Winter Olympics in Sochi. On March 21 the authorities reported the death of Ibragim Gadzhidadayev, commander of the rebels in Gimri. He was killed at the home of the head of the Unstukul District municipal council. The rebels later claimed that Gadzhidadayev had managed to escape, but offered no proof. On June 2, the influential mayor of Makhachkala, Said Amirov, was taken into custody. It is widely believed that Amirov maintained contacts with the insurgents, and used them to further his own political and business interests.
On the whole, the Russian security forces have been fairly successful in their campaign against terrorism in recent years. There have not been any terrorist attacks in Moscow since 2011, and definitely not for lack of trying. The security services foiled a bombing in Moscow on New Year’s Eve 2013; prevented a bombing on the high-speed train service between Moscow and St Petersburg; and foiled another plot in Orekhovo-Zuyevo. Groups of extremists are being seized in and around Moscow on a fairly regular basis.
The question is, how long will this relatively successful period last? Effective military and security operations against the jihadists have clearly slowed the growth of their political sway and reduced the scale of their military activity, which peaked in 2009-2011. But these operations are much less effective against the underlying political and social processes that feed the extremism — namely the radicalization of young Muslims in Russia as a whole, and in some of its regions in particular.
Back in the 1990s the jihadists were active only in Chechnya and parts of Dagestan. By now, however, they have established their presence in the rest of the East Caucasus (Dagestan and Ingushetia) and made major gains in the west of the region (Karachayevo-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria, and parts of Stavropol Territory). Their growing activity in the trans-Volga region could also trigger an eruption of violence at any moment.
The Russian government has tried various instruments to deal with this problem. It has been giving support to moderate Islamic leaders; investing in Islamic education; and stimulating the migration of young people from the North Caucasus to central Russia in an effort to “let off demographic steam”. The latter tactic, however, has also brought some unintended consequences; cultural differences between ethnic Russians and migrants from the North Caucasus often lead to ethnic tension and clashes all over the country. Meanwhile, corruption in the Russian higher education system has severely undermined the role of universities as “cauldrons of adaptation and integration” for students from the troubled provinces.
As far as the ethnic situation is concerned, internal migration from the North Caucasus has been compounded by mass immigration from the overpopulated Central Asian states of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. This trend started to gain momentum at the turn of the century. Since President Putin took office in 2000, a whole new Muslim community of expatriates from Central Asia has emerged in Russia in addition to the two old ones (the Tatars/Bashkirs and the North Caucasus Muslims).
Despite growing discontent among ethnic Russians, the government in Moscow has no plans for a U-turn on its migration policy. That policy is seen as a major instrument of Russian influence on the Central Asian regimes. By coming to Russia in search of job opportunities, millions of young males from these countries substantially reduce the demographic and social pressure back home, and their remittances support not only their own families but the local economies as well. The Russian business community, which is facing a deficit of cheap unskilled labor, is also a major lobbyist for immigration from Central Asia.
Apart from adding to ethnic tension in central Russia, Central Asian migrants are fertile ground for radical Islamist movements. The Hizb-ut-Tahrir party, which arrived in Russia in the 1990s along with refugees fleeing the Islam Karimov regime in Uzbekistan, began to recruit Russian Muslims in the early 2000s. The party was banned in 2003; nevertheless, it is very active in the Moscow and the Volga-Urals region, despite the arrest and conviction of more than a hundred of its activists. The latest campaign organized by Hizb-ut-Tahrir in Russia was a series of pickets, with protesters accusing the government of oppressing Muslims. The pickets were organized in small oil-producing towns, in larger cities in the Urals and Volga regions, and even on Red Square in Moscow. Several party cells have sprung up in Dagestan, where the first large Hizb-ut-Tahrir rally was held in Khasavyurt in September 2012. Previously, the party’s distinct form of Islamist propaganda, which focused on the establishment of a Caliphate in Central Asia, did not get much traction in the Caucasus.
The North Caucasus has been plagued by terrorism for more than 15 years. In the Volga-Urals region, however, the government has so far been able to prevent an escalation of armed violence. There have been a few clashes since late 1999, but the terrorist cells are usually eliminated at the early stages. For example, after the assassination of Valiulla Yakupov, a moderate Muslim leader, and an attempt on the life of the Mufti of Tatarstan, Ildus Faizov, in July 2012, the terrorists who perpetrated the attacks were killed the following autumn. But a radical Islamist underground has already emerged in this strategically important part of Russia, whose territory is crisscrossed by key oil and gas export pipelines and dotted by petrochemical facilities, as well as other vulnerable targets for terrorists. Islamist militants from Central Russia are now fighting for their jihadist cause from Afghanistan to Syria; they also make up the majority of the Russian prisoners currently held in Guantanamo.
Jihadists from the Volga region are especially dangerous because they threaten the critical energy transit infrastructure and industrial facilities concentrated in that part of Russia. “We will punch your pipelines full of holes,” ranted the self-proclaimed Emir of Bulgaristan when he claimed responsibility for launching four home-made missiles at the Nizhnekamskneftekhim chemical plant on November 16, 2013.3 “We will attack your oil, petrochemical and strategic facilities. We will derail your passenger trains.” The missile attack on the chemical plant failed to inflict any damage. But the Tatarstan province has recently seen a series of arson attacks against Orthodox Christian churches. This looks more Middle Eastern than the methods traditional in the North Caucasus. The government is so concerned that in the autumn of 2012 it restricted travel to the city of Novy Urengoy, a major gas industry center, due to fears of attacks by the various radical groups that have emerged in the region’s growing Islamist underground.
Meanwhile, growing pressure by the security forces has prompted Russian jihadists to look beyond Russia’s borders for training and getting combat experience. For example, they have been active in Waziristan (northern Pakistan), the traditional stamping ground of the Pakistani Taliban. But the biggest magnet for Russian Islamist militants is probably Syria. The country is closer to southern Russia than Iraq or Afghanistan/Pakistan. There are convenient transit routes available via Turkey. The jihadists can easily hide themselves among the millions of Russian tourists who travel to Turkish resorts every year. Once inside Turkey, they can slip to camps on the Turkish-Syrian border, and then cross to territories controlled by the Syrian rebels.
One important difference between Syria and places such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq is that in Syria the jihadists are fighting government forces, not U.S. troops. The Syrian regime has a Soviet-type army, armed with Soviet weapons. It does not have the latest military technologies, and it has no access to attack drones, which are hunting the mujahedeen with deadly efficiency across vast territories from Yemen to Afghanistan. In Syria, the rebels have the political support of not only the Gulf monarchies, but the Western powers as well. That makes life so much easier for the Islamists fighting against Assad.
That is why Syria has become a place where Al Qaeda can recuperate after heavy losses sustained in other parts of the Middle East in recent years. The country has become a safe haven for the military wing of Al Qaeda, the Jabhat al-Nusra, as well as the organization’s political and propaganda wing.
What does the Syrian jihad offer radicals from Russia and other CIS states? The benefits are numerous, including:
Experience of urban warfare against Soviet/Russian type armed forces;
Experience of large-scale sabotage and hit-and-run attacks against infrastructure and industrial targets;
Opportunities for networking with global jihadists. In that sense, Syria is playing the role Peshawar did 25 years ago, when the Pakistani city became the home of the “Afghan Arabs” who later formed the core of Al Qaeda.
After the killing of such prominent Saudi commanders as Khattab (in 2002) and his successor Abu al-Walid (2004), the numbers of foreign jihadists fighting in Russia began to decline. The Russian secret services then picked off, one by one, the remaining emissaries of foreign extremist organizations. As a result, Russian militant Islamists found themselves cut off from the mainstream of the global jihad. That isolation became especially obvious in 2010-2011.
Now, however, the participation of Russian militants in the Syrian conflict has largely resolved that problem. Even at the propaganda level, such figures as Tarkhan Batirashvili (a.k.a. Umar Shihani, or the Chechen) are now among the most prominent international faces of the global jihad. The same applies to a somewhat lesser extent to Ayrat Vakhitov (a.k.a. Salman Bulgarskiy), a native of Russia’s Tatarstan province who spent time in Guantanamo.
Another reason why Syria is important is that the war there has not lived up to the expectations of the foreign mujahedeen. In 2011 and 2012 they flocked to the country in the hope that it would soon become another Libya. They expected a quick victory over the Syrian regime, led by the “heretic” Alawites. But their hopes have been dashed; the Assad regime is still fighting, and the conflict has turned into a war of attrition. The natural rotation process among the foreign militants and veterans has already begun. Some of them are coming back to their home countries, having become all the more dangerous for the connections and combat experience they have gained in Syria.
Estimates of the numbers of Russian jihadists who have fought in Syria range from 200 to 2,000. The government has said on several occasions that 400 Russian extremists have been involved in fighting in the Middle East. Apart from natives of the Russian North Caucasus and the Volga-Urals region, hundreds of militants from Central Asian countries, including Kazakhstan, have also fought against Assad. In view of the growing Central Asian diaspora in Russia, the return of these militants from Syria will further contribute to the radicalization of the Russian Muslim community.
The Russia security forces have scored some major achievements in their campaign against terrorism. Nevertheless, the terrorist threat in Russia remains high. Worse, there is a clear potential for that threat to grow even more deadly thanks to the restoration of contacts between Russian jihadists and Al Qaeda militants fighting in Syria; the return of these Russian jihadists home from Syria; the Russian government’s determination to allow an unrestricted flow of migrants from Central Asia; the emergence of terrorist cells in new regions, including the parts of Russia with major oil and gas production or transit infrastructure; and the lack of an effective strategy for de-radicalizing the Russian Muslim community.