Originally Published 2015-07-09 00:00:00 Published on Jul 09, 2015
Russia has been dealing with extremism within its borders for several years. So it is not exactly unprepared for whatever threat ISIL currently poses. However, there is a degree of complacency that has set in.
Russia's ISIL challenge in the North Caucasus

Whenever the conversation turns to the Islamic State, the question on everyone's mind centres around what the US response will be. Understandably so, considering its presence in the area over the last several years has had a huge impact on the current state of things. But focusing solely on the United States' actions has led to other major players in the area being neglected, particularly Russia whose connection to the Middle East goes far back and continues well into the present. Its close strategic, geographical and cultural ties to the region makes it an important factor in the struggle against ISIL, and also more vulnerable to its influence.

Given its involvement in the Syrian Civil War, it is no surprise that the parallel, yet intersecting conflict involving the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, has dragged Russia in. Its support and arms shipments to one of the Islamic State's enemies, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in the violent sectarian civil war, have drawn the Islamic State's ire. ISIL has publicly called out Russian President Vladimir Putin by name for the aforementioned support and declared its intention to "liberate" Chechnya.

Russia has been facing down its own home-grown insurgency in the North Caucasus - the problem of Chechen independence that has already resulted in two devastating wars and a concurrent rise in Islamic extremism. Islam has been a part of the local culture for centuries but it appears that only recently, in the face of conflict and oppression after the First Chechen War, did extremism take hold. Islam was, for some, conflated with the struggle for Chechen independence.

The Second Chechen War ended when an agreement was reached between Moscow and Akhmad Kadyrov, the Chief Mufti of this secessionist Chechen Republic of Ichkeria that had been proclaimed in 1991. Kadyrov, a militia commander during the First Chechen War, switched sides in 1999, citing his opposition* to the growing Wahhabi influence in the struggle. Following his assassination in 2004, his son, Ramzan Kadyrov, took over as Head of the Chechen Republic in 2007, a few months after he turned 30, the minimum age for the post. The separatist forces that stayed came into conflict with these pro-Russian Chechen groups, and some fled to the mountains or to neighbouring areas such as Georgia's Pankisi Gorge and Dagestan - an area that has seen an increase in militant activity over the past several years. There was an attempt to unite the various groups fighting in Chechnya, leading to the formation of the Caucasian Front, functioning as a unit of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria under then-President Abdul-Halim Sadulayev. Subsequently, the Republic itself was abolished and the Caucasus Emirate was formed under Doku Umarov, with the aim of establishing an Islamic Emirate in Russia's North Caucasus region.

Fighters trained in this conflict are a part of the nearly two thousand Russian nationals who have gone on to fight for ISIL. Estimates go as high as five thousand. Several "battle-hardened" Chechens already occupy commanding roles. ISIL has also stepped up its recruitment efforts by releasing several Russian-language magazines that are currently in circulation, notably "Istok" ("Source"), and there have been reports of Central Asian migrant workers in Moscow being recruited by Chechen "gangs" to fight for the Islamic State. Several Chechen and Dagestani youth (among others) have grown increasingly disillusioned by their prospects and the corruption they encounter at home. Many are attracted to the growing influence of Salafism as a counterpoint to Sufism that has been associated with a corrupt and inefficient state. Some are drawn to the idea of living under Sharia law, free from persecution, and no doubt persuaded by the staggering amount of propaganda that has been flooding the Internet.

Although there is a very real risk of these fighters returning to Russia in order to carry out attacks, at the moment it seems unlikely as it is the nature of the Islamic State that it needs physical territory to maintain credibility and establish a caliphate, and until that territory is secure, it cannot afford to have experienced fighters leave Iraq and Syria. Expertise is needed, especially when ISIL is facing strong opposition on various fronts, such as the Kurdish forces. There is, of course, the risk of local actors claiming to carry out attacks in ISIL's name, but Russia has unfortunately been facing such targeted attacks for the last several years as a consequence of the North Caucasus insurgency.

In December 2014, militants from the Caucasus Emirate carried out attacks on Chechnya's capital Grozny. There are regular clashes between security forces and rebel groups resulting in casualties, although the number has been falling in recent years. Some attribute it to the exodus of fighters to Syria and Iraq; others claim the increase of anti-terror operations in the region. But there is a threat- that of local actors that are willing to take up the cause of the Islamic State in their own region.

In the event that the goals of the Caucasus Emirate and the Islamic State align, the threat to Russia would be even greater, given the presence of a local militant group with very specific interests in the region owing its allegiance to the larger, more global group. It would allow the Islamic State to try and achieve its goals in Chechnya through a local proxy and would solve the problem of needing to acquire contiguous territory, which would have been an obstacle for ISIL since its advance would have been blocked by the enemies surrounding it - Iran, Turkey, the Kurds, Jordan, Israel. Many commanders have already declared support for the Islamic State, including Aslan Byutukayev, commander of the Chechen wing of the Caucasus Emirate, who claims to have command of "as many as 15,000" fighters. But the fact still remains that these two groups are rooted in very different histories even though they may share superficially similar goals. That the Caucasus Emirate is a local phenomenon with local ambitions, and the fact that many Salafis in the region are divided over the issue of the Islamic State raises doubts about the groups' allegiances as a whole.

So far, Russia's response to the threat of ISIL has been very measured -- inside and outside its borders. So far the only overt way of combating ISIL has been by providing supplies and arms to its enemies, including the Syrian president. Iran could be a key partner in the region, and Moscow has been seeking to build closer ties with Tehran. Russia can keep ISIL focused on Iraq and Syria for the time being, and must rely on regional powers to act as a stabilizing force. It is unlikely any significant number of troops will be deployed; even countries in the region seem hesitant in sending troops to Syria to fight. Within its boundaries, it has been dealing with the insurgency by continuing anti-terror operations.

Russia, like a lot of European countries, also faces the problem of returning fighters -- not ones intent on doing harm, but those who have become disillusioned with their role in the Islamic State and want to return, as was the situation in with certain French fighters. It needs an effective method to de-radicalize these people and if possible, reintegrate them into society. Efforts are being made in places such as Dagestan to talk to returning fighters. Also, increasingly, the Russian state is being associated with the Russian Orthodox Church, while Chechnya and other republics of the North Caucasus retain their link with Islam. This can and has lead to tensions and misunderstandings between the state authorities and many people living in these regions. Because the Islamic State espouses Salafist ideology, they have been treating all Salafis, including the ones who are sceptical about ISIS, with suspicion. There have been reports of abuse and harassment by officials of Salafis, and they maintain watch lists. Any damage incurred during counter-insurgency operations is often not compensated. Oppression will only breed resentment and the harsher crackdown will only have the opposite effect.

At the moment, it seems that the more immediate concern for Russia is the crisis in Ukraine and its ensuing sanctions, their effects on the Russian economy and the collapsing ruble. Ukraine is closer to home, and the issues of that region are more familiar. The North Caucasus is extremely diverse ethnically and linguistically. Russia has been dealing with extremism within its borders for several years so it is not exactly unprepared for whatever threat ISIL currently poses. However, there is a degree of complacency that has set in. Because the region's history of instability, it seems as if the change in rhetoric of some of the active insurgent groups is not a particular cause for alarm. Moscow can rely on its strongmen in the region, such as Kadyrov in Chechnya, to maintain the peace, but it also needs to focus on improving the region's economy and opportunities to prevent some of its youth from becoming radicalized, and eroding the insurgency's support base. The tendency to conflate Islam with extremism by the authorities shows up in its attitude towards migrant workers from Central Asia, as well as Russian Muslims, and this simplistic approach can only serve to exacerbate the situation. While the "foreign" nature of ISIL could work against it in a largely local conflict, it still demands more attention than it is getting precisely because of the volatile situation in the region.

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