Abu Omar al-Shishani: the Islamist leader is from an ethnic Georgian group related to the Chechens, while many fighters from the North Caucasus republics have travelled to Syria

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Every time Albina’s mobile phone buzzes, she winces. “It could be my sister, from Syria,” says the young woman, sitting in the kitchen of the small apartment she shares with her mother in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan.

In October, her brother-in-law, his wife and their three children disappeared, leaving a message that they had gone to live in the Islamic State. Since then, Albina and her mother have been taking turns staying at home to make sure they will not be overheard if the family calls to tell them they are safe.

Albina’s family is one of many in the North Caucasus brooding over the fate of their loved ones as hundreds, if not thousands, from the troubled southern fringe of Russia have followed the call of Islamists to go to Syria.

As in Europe and other western countries, Russia is struggling to stop the radicalisation of young Muslims and their recruitment by Isis or other jihadist groups. But Moscow has an even more urgent and difficult task at hand: to prevent the war in Syria from fuelling its homegrown Islamist insurgency in the republics of the North Caucasus.

Even though Moscow won the war in Chechnya, an Islamist underground continues to exist, and young men continue to join up, or, as the locals say, “go into the forest”.

Last week, President Vladimir Putin said security forces were hunting for Russian citizens classified as international terrorists. “Our servicemen were working in this area to prevent the possible return of these people to Russian territory to commit crimes,” he said.

According to Russia’s Federal Security Service, the number of Russian citizens fighting with Isis has risen from 1,700 in February to 2,400 in September. And while some analysts say these figures are exaggerated, there is consensus that the North Caucasus republics of Dagestan and Chechnya are the epicentre of the problem in Russia. The Chechen government says 405 of the republic’s citizens have left to fight with Isis. Dagestan has not published confirmed statistics, but an official estimates that more than 1,000 of its citizens are in Syria.

Many Central Asians seeking to fight in Syria travel through Russia. Some 80 to 90 per cent of Isis fighters from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are radicalised and recruited while in Russia as migrant workers, according to estimates by Noah Tucker, author of a report on Central Asian involvement in the conflict in Syria and Iraq.

“In these countries, local or regional identity is much more important than the national one. When they move to Russia, they lose their community and replace their local identity with a Muslim one,” he says.

Radicalising factors

The radicalisation of people from Central Asia and the North Caucasus is closely intertwined: thousands of young men from Dagestan and Chechnya, driven from home by struggling economies and high unemployment, are on the move elsewhere in Russia. They mingle with central Asian workers in big cities from Moscow to Vladivostok, and also in Tyumen and Khanty-Mansiysk — oil producing regions in the northern Urals that are reliant on migrant labour.

As a result, the non-traditional Salafist strand of Islam is on the rise in these areas, providing fertile ground for radicalisation, experts say.

“Some people from the North Caucasus get radicalised not at home but when they go out to other regions of Russia as migrant workers,” says Varvara Pakhomenko, a Caucasus expert at the International Crisis Group. “Many Central Asian migrant workers in Russia in turn get radicalised by people from the North Caucasus, recruited by them to go to Syria.” There is also a problem among Tatars and Bashkirs, two other predominantly Muslim ethnic groups in Russia, she adds.

Among the ranks of both Isis and groups affiliated with Jabhat al-Nusra, fighters from the North Caucasus often stand out because of their battlefield experience either in the Chechen wars or the 2008 Russia-Georgia war.

The risks of radicals flowing across borders were long ignored in Moscow. Initially, security officials acquiesced to or even encouraged Islamists from the North Caucasus leaving for Syria.

Yekaterina Sazhneva, a columnist at the Moskovsky Komsomolets daily who has long reported on the North Caucasus and the Middle East, says: “I find it very strange that they managed to leave Russia in the first place. The security services had many of these people on their lists, and their exit should have been blocked. But the idea behind it is clear: these people are radicals, we don’t need them here, and as long as they are in Syria, they’re not causing us any trouble back home.”

Troublemakers return

Such export of potential radicals seems to have been facilitated by Moscow’s efforts to guarantee security at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. “Before the Olympics, there was very, very strong pressure on regional security officials in the North Caucasus to make sure there was no security risk to the Games,” says Ms Pakhomenko.

Whether or not it was official Russian policy to use Syria as a pressure valve for the local insurgency, it appears to have worked — at least in the short term. Dagestan has not registered any terrorist attacks since early 2014.

But government officials and experts are wary that the problem of Islamist radicalism is coming back to haunt the region. “The Russian government has changed tack since the middle of 2014, long before they started looking into a military operation in Syria,” says a European official involved in police and intelligence exchanges with Russia. “They saw our problems with jihadi recruits, and they woke up to the risk of people returning with more friends, weapons and money.”

Since the summer of 2014, Russian immigration officials have drastically stepped up exit checks of Russian citizens leaving for Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan, the main countries through which jihadi fighters are known to travel to Syria. “Security officials have been asking people who want to travel to Turkey their passwords for social media and checked their phones for jihadi videos,” says Ms Pakhomenko.

According to the interior ministry, 477 criminal cases were opened last year alone on individuals charged with fighting in an illegal armed formation abroad — almost double the number in 2013.

Since Russia started its military operation in Syria in late September, the crackdown on radical Islamist groups has been advertised as a part of the fight against Isis rather than an effort to root out homegrown terrorism.

In October, Chechen strongman ruler Ramzan Kadyrov, the man Mr Putin relies on to keep the republic stable, said a group of young men inspired by Isis had conspired to assassinate him. In a meeting broadcast live on state television, Mr Kadyrov told the men and their parents that the ignorant youngsters had been seduced by the treacherous teachings of Islam. Following this public shaming, the alleged participants of the plot promised to change their ways and were then forgiven by the ruler.

Authorities in Moscow are also trying to block the fast-changing social media channels through which terrorist groups in Syria recruit young Russians.

The Safe Internet League, a pro-government body, last month launched a hotline on which internet users can report extremist content related to Isis for blocking. In another initiative, a Moscow-based institute believed to be backed by the security services is trying to identify and locate Isis recruiters through data-mining software.

But experts complain that Moscow’s high-profile push does little to address the root causes of radicalisation, warning that the heavy-handed approach to homegrown Islamist insurgents risks driving even more young people into the arms of Isis. “Russia is not giving any ideological answers to the calls of radical Islam,” says Yana Amelina, an expert on the Caucasus and co-author of Russia’s first comprehensive report on Isis.

Security experts say Russia’s long and painful experience with terror attacks has bred a reflex to throw money and military hardware at the problem.

“Profiling Isis recruiters is fine, but what needs to be done at the same time is profiling their targets,” says Alexei Filatov, vice-president of the International Alpha Veterans Organisation, a club of former anti-terror special forces members. “We must find those members of our society who are vulnerable to such propaganda, and find out why they are vulnerable — that’s the only way that we can protect them and all of us.”

Distortions in Dagestan

In Dagestan, those working with young people face this challenge everyday. Gasan Osmanov, head of a youth centre in the Babayurt region, is worried about some of the secular students he meets at sports and other activities organised by his centre. “The level of knowledge about our religion is very low, and the children soak up all sorts of distorted stuff way faster than you can imagine,” he says. “Much of the time, we have no clue what’s going on in their heads.”

Videos circulating under the “Unexpected jihad” meme and featuring the cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants are all the rage among Mr Osmanov’s students. But while such videos — remixes featuring explosions, cries of “Allahu akbar” and Islamic prayer song — were produced as a mockery of jihadism, many Dagestani youngsters watch them without any sense of irony. “Yes, they think this is funny, but in the sense of cool. They pick up ‘Allahu akbar’ as something they can identify with,” says Mr Osmanov. “They need to be taught what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is evil. But we don’t know how to reach them.”

Such descriptions mirror the personal histories of many young men from Muslim immigrant families in western countries who fall for Isis. Many of them know little about the religion of their ancestors but absorb jihadist ideology in search of an identity as they feel marginalised in the country they grew up in.

In the Russian North Caucasus, the local insurgency and the government’s campaign to stamp it out have instilled a sense of disaffection at least as strong.

To quash the rebellion, Moscow largely relies on omnipresent security forces and brutal crackdowns on those identified as insurgents and everyone connected with them. Mr Kadyrov has gained notoriety for expelling the families of Chechen insurgents and destroying their homes. Since 2013, Dagestan has adopted these practices as well, while turning away from programmes to rehabilitate insurgents.

Local experts believe that this practice is backfiring and driving young Dagestanis into the arms of Isis. “Our problem is how we deal with our own terrorists, the men who get caught and imprisoned or killed in special operations,” says Patimat Omarova, dean of the special education department at Dagestan State Pedagogical University. “If we don’t work with their families, we will get many more fighters. We will lose an entire generation.”

Educators, psychologists and muftis (Islamic scholars) in Dagestan argue that death or imprisonment transforms local insurgents into heroes in the eyes of their children and inclines them to view the state and its representatives as enemies. In this situation, they warn, the government’s persistent talk of the Islamic State will only make it more attractive.

“Our men used to go into the forest,” says a Salafi preacher with reference to the insurgency. “Now Syria has taken the place of the forest.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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